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Press release

Iodine deficiency still leaves millions of children at risk of mental retardation

But UNICEF Says A Grain of Salt Is All That's Needed

BEIJING, 15 October 2003  –  Despite major advances over the last 12 years, millions of children are still being born in households where iodized salt is not consumed, putting them at risk of developing the mental disabilities caused by Iodine Deficiency Disorder, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said today.

In 2002, 46 million children were born unprotected from iodine deficiency, the world’s single greatest cause of preventable mental retardation.

“There is no reason for so many children to be compromised by a disorder that can be prevented with only a few grains of iodized salt,” Bellamy said on the opening day of the International Meeting for the Sustained Elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders in Beijing, China.

Delegations from 26 countries worldwide have come here to learn from China’s success and join forces to eliminate iodine deficiency.  The percentage of Chinese households protected by iodized salt rose spectacularly from 30% in 1995 to over 90% by 2000.  Although this coverage has been sustained at over 95%, in the remotest areas of the country some 2 million children continue to be born each year unprotected from iodine deficiency.

Eliminating Iodine Deficiency Disorders through routine use of iodized salt is a key component of UNICEF’s mission to ensure that every child has the opportunity to survive and thrive through adolescence.

While the worst cases of iodine deficiency can cause severe mental retardation, such as cretinism, even mild iodine deficiency can result in a significant loss in learning ability.  Where it is prevalent, IDD can lower the intelligence quotient (IQ) of a population by as much as 13 points, with serious implications for the human and economic development of nations.  Other effects include goitre and, in women, a higher risk of stillbirth and miscarriage. 

A Spoonful of Iodine

UNICEF said these losses can be prevented with as little as one teaspoon of iodine over the course of a lifetime.

From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of households in the developing world using iodized salt jumped from less than 20 percent to 70 percent.  But the past two years have  shown both progress and backsliding with respect to the goal, first established at the 1990 World Summit for Children and then re-adopted last year at a special session of the UN General Assembly, of eliminating iodine deficiency disorders forever by 2005.

Since 2001, the number of countries reporting over 90 percent iodized salt consumption increased from 21 to 27.

But globally, the proportion of households consuming iodized salt decreased from 69 percent to 65 percent during the past two years.  Accordingly, UNICEF estimates that in 2002, only 86 million newborn children were protected from brain-damage related to iodine deficiency, compared to 91 million in 2001. 

“This alarming trend can and must be halted,” Bellamy said. “All the key players – government, the salt industry, scientific groups and civil society – must work together to make sure that every household everywhere is consuming iodized salt.”

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For further information, please contact:

Claire Hajaj, UNICEF Media, New York
+1-212-326-7566 chajaj@unicef.org




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