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Anatoly Karpov, UNICEF Regional Ambasador for CEE/CIS

© Humberto Salgado/EFE/2004
Anatoly Karpov, UNICEF Regional Ambassador for CEE/CIS, who is crusading against iodine deficiency

Mention the name Anatoly Karpov and one word pops into mind: chess. These days, though, the former world chess supremo is championing a very different cause: iodized salt.

While people in rich countries may take this subject with, well, a pinch of salt, the lack of iodized salt is a key health problem in many regions of the world, including in Karpov's own country, Russia.

"I am very pleased to be involved in this issue, " said Karpov, who is UNICEF’s Regional Ambassador for Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic states.

"We have clear aims and there are clear ways to solve the problem. We're in the process of achieving universal salt iodization," he told the Online Magazine.

Lack of iodine in the diet leads to iodine deficiency disorder, a serious condition, particularly for pregant women and children (see Fast facts). Hence the importance of eliminating IDD, which can be done, quite simply, by having everyone eat iodized salt.
The Online Magazine managed to catch up with Karpov in between a briefing for journalists at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva and a busy afternoon of meetings at GRO. Soft-spoken, modest and courteous, he displayed a real passion for his subject - giving the interviewer a taste of that piercing concentration for which he's so famed.

There has already been big progress on the IDD front in the region he represents, particularly in the last two years, Karpov points out in his near fluent English. Seven countries in Eastern Europe, the Baltics and Central Asia have already eliminated IDD while legislation making consumption of iodized salt mandatory has recently been passed in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

"The biggest challenges are to get Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on board," he said. "Then, mostly the work will be done."

Consider the following: These three countries, plus Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are the region's biggest salt producers and exporters. As long as they continue to churn out the non-iodized version, iodine deficiency will persist.

"Their actions are decisive," Karpov said. More than half the population in Russia still consumes the bad kind of salt, "particularly in the countryside. In Ukraine, it's the same thing," he said.

Boosting iodine consumption

The region Karpov represents for UNICEF has the lowest household use (48%) of iodized salt in the world - lower, even, than in Africa.

In the Soviet Union era, the Government provided iodized salt to regions with deficiencies. With the collapse of the central Government in the early 1990s, the iodized salt programme was discontinued. In addition, the privatization of the salt market stopped most production of such salt - hence the plunge in consumption rates. Thus far, the Russian Government has not mandated salt iodization, but that could soon change.

The passage and enforcement of legislation making salt production mandatory is vital for a lasting solution to IDD.

Karpov is optimistic that the necessary legislation will be in place in all five major salt producing countries by the end of 2006. A bill on iodized salt is scheduled to be tabled by the Russian Parliament during its current session, which ends in spring 2005. And Ukraine has also signalled its intention to follow suit on the legal front. During a visit to Ukraine in 2002, Karpov personally conveyed the importance of salt legislation in a meeting with the former President Leonid Kuchma.

Money, for once, is not an issue in switching to iodized output

"It cost US$15,000 on average to open an iodized salt factory," Karpov said. As for consumers, the extra payout for this kind of salt is 5 US cents per person per year - that works out to 20 US cents for a family of four each year. And good health is priceless.

Decades of service

Karpov has been active on the humanitarian and human rights front for more than two decades, in the process of which he came to know UNICEF.

Since 1982, he's been President of the International Associations of Peace Foundations. He's also President of the Chernobyl Help Organization that helps victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Don't think for a minute, though, that the former International Grand Master has abandoned chess.

"I still play in tournaments," he said. He's also involved in chess education in schools. So far, he's helped establish school chess programmes in 15 countries - as diverse as Germany, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and China.

In Russia alone, there are schools with special chess activities in 22 provinces.

Karpov has just started with chess education in Brazil, which he visited at the end of August. "In two years, the goal is to have chess schools in all 27 Brazilian states," up from four now, he said.

There is clearly great synergy between Karpov's work on iodized salt and promoting chess skills in children. Without sufficient iodine, a child will lack brainpower and be unlikely to grasp the game, let alone outmanoeuvre the competitor.

Universal salt iodization would be a boon for everyone and...check mate for Karpov.

Anatoly Karpov - Background

Anatoly Karpov was born on 23 May 1951 in Zlatoust, a town in the Ural Mountains of Russia. He graduated as an economist from Leningrad University and is today a Senior Research Fellow at Moscow State University. World Chess Champion from 1975-1985 and again in 1993, Mr. Karpov's many books on his career as an International Grand Master have been best-sellers in several languages. Mr. Karpov has received a number of awards, including the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union's highest distinction, and served as a member of the Supreme Soviet.

In the post-Soviet era, he was the first to receive the Russian State Parliament's highest award. The Russian Orthodox Church has decorated Mr. Karpov for his efforts to restore the country's churches and other historic sites. In the early 1990s, Mr. Karpov initiated the World Youth Chess Championship, which sponsors regular tournaments around the world, including for disadvantaged young people. He serves as mentor and promoter of Young People's Chess Clubs throughout the CIS.

He became UNICEF’s Regional Ambassador for Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic states in 2000.

“I can’t imagine a better partner for us,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, following a meeting with the Grand Master. “Champion chess requires strategic thinking, intelligence and savvy, a flare for the unconventional and deep personal commitment. Achieving real change for the world's children requires those same talents, and we are enormously grateful that Mr. Karpov has devoted himself to being a champion for children."

Mr. Karpov, who had already collaborated with UNICEF on an informal basis for several years, said he would continue a personal battle to put children's rights "at the centre of the region's political agenda."

In May 2002, Mr. Karpov helped to launch the Network for the Sustained Elimination of Iodine Deficiency, which aims to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders around the world by the year 2005. The network, a partnership of UN agencies and public and private organizations, was announced at 'A Smart Start for Children', an event at the UN Special Session on Children in 2002.

Mr. Karpov chairs the International Association of Peace Foundations, a Moscow-based non-governmental association, which has provided support for child victims of armed conflict and children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. He is an active volunteer in a range of civil society initiatives, with emphasis on child rights, peace-building and social development.

By Tani Ruiz

GENEVA, 23 September, 2004 

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Angela Hawke, Communication Officer

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