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Iodized salt means a brighter future for Laos and its children

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF USA/2004/Nielsson
Workers bagging iodized salt in Laos

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BAN THA, Laos, 5 August 2004 – Vanhdy and Soudsadi Keothaune have had four children together. Even though the children are all equally loved by their parents, they are not all equally healthy.

“On the first child, I noticed that her brain is slower compared to the second, third and fourth children. She is also very timid and shy and doesn’t have a high level of cleverness,” said Vanhdy, their father.

Fourteen years ago, Vanhdy’s wife Soudsadi suffered from iodine deficiency. The delivery of her first born, Naly, was difficult, and Naly’s physical and mental development was slow. 

Naly is not the only child in Laos who has suffered from the lack of iodine in their diet. Iodine deficiency has long been a major health problem in Laos.

Nine years ago, a survey of school-aged children in Laos found that 95 per cent of them suffered from iodine deficiency, indicating the likelihood of widespread brain damage and decline in I.Q., harming the adaptability and future productivity of Laos’ next generation.

Even today, in the remote mountain passes of Laos, there are still the tell-tale signs – village elders with goiters, adults afflicted with cretinism – of a legacy of iodine-poor diets. 

Laos is a landlocked nation with a mountainous terrain and monsoon climate that work against micronutrients being retained in the soil. This means that vegetables and rice consumed in the provinces do not have sufficient iodine.

But there has been progress battling the problem, through salt iodization. In 1993, Laos was listed as one of the most countries whose population was most severely affected by iodine deficiency. Now, things are radically different.  Laos is now projected to be the first country in the region after China to achieve universal salt iodization.  .
In the mid-1990s UNICEF urged the government of Laos to pass a law mandating universal salt iodization. After the law passed Kiwanis International-an organization of service minded individuals in 92 countries working to help  children and young adults around the world-began assisting Laotian salt manufacturers to ensure the distribution of high-quality iodized salt throughout the country.  They also worked with teachers and the government to promote the iodization of salt, to ensure people understand its benefits, and to monitor results.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF USA/2004/Nielsson
Students are doing better in school because of iodized salt

With the support of UNICEF,  the Government of Laos and salt producers are committed to improving iodine nutrition and run ‘The Elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders’ project. This partnership has resulted in more than 90 per cent of households in Laos now consuming iodized salt.

Vanhdy and Soudsadi have seen the improvements in their children.

“Our second child is taller than the first child. Videth has more creativity, and also more ideas. After school, he looks after the water buffalo and the ducks in the rice fields.  The third child Sida assists our grandmother. She looks after grandmother’s small shop and sells some packaged goods. The smallest child has not been assigned any chores yet. Mostly he accompanies his brother and sisters.  I want all my children to do chores, to become self-reliant,” said Vanhdy proudly.

Laos as a nation is seeking to become self-reliant when it comes to iodized salt. Although salt producers in Laos have begun iodizing salt, imported salt sold in the market can be questionable.  These packages of salt are clearly labelled ‘iodized salt’, but the salt inside may not actually be iodized.

A conversation between a Laotian villager and a government official illustrates the difficulty in knowing if salt truly has iodine or not.

Mrs. Ngõ-Hue: I bought this salt…(at a factory) 
Viengvilay Phommachanh, Lao Food and Drug Officer: They lied to you about its iodine content because they wanted to sell it to you.
Mrs. Ngõ-Hue: But I bought it from the factory.  They wouldn’t lie. They gave me a certificate.  I have a certificate.

But the certificate did lie. A lab test showed the salt had no iodine at all.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF USA/2004/Nielsson
Children are leading happier, more productive lives since Laos has committed to iodizing salt

Local vendors are aware of the problem but it is hard to control, and no one wants to face the fact that they have been duped. 

“Our family along with the whole village is looking for ways to guarantee the constant supply of iodized salt for the whole village,” Soudsadi says, “so we will be able to make use of iodized salt every day forever.” 

“If from now on everybody uses iodized salt for cooking, more family business will emerge in the village, people will make more products to sell, and our living conditions will gradually be improved,” says Vanhdy, Soudsadi’s husband, headmaster of the village primary school. “During my class, we discuss the importance of iodine, and many students express their willingness to fight against the spread of the ‘Adam’s apple disease’.  They all want to become more clever.”

The results have been good, but the UNICEF in-country team is quick to point out that in the short term, there is still much work to do.

“We still have more than 20 per cent of the most hard-to-reach households without iodized salt,” says UNICEF’s Dr. Intong Keomoungkhoune.

Dr. Intong, a passionate advocate of education and testing as critical parts of the iodine campaign, says: “The next two years will determine whether we can reach our goal, and beyond that, the sustainability of the iodization program.  If not for Kiwanis International, we would not be within reach.  I hope they realize how much this means to so many people in Laos. If we make it, this will change our children’s lives forever.”

Vanhdy and Soudsadi know their children’s lives have already been changed by having iodine added to salt. They are healthier. And so is the future of Laos.




June 2004-Salt story: How Iodized salt is improving the health of Laos

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