Iodine deficiency still a major health threat


PESHAWAR, Nov 4: Millions of people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) remain at risk because of iodine deficiency, a condition which can cause multiple (and very serious) health problems.

The deficiency is also something most people are unaware of. Very few people in KP know about the importance of iodine in their food, said UNICEF Nutrition Officer Dr Muhammad Atif. According to the National Nutrition Survey (NNS) 2011, around 50% of the country’s population is iodine deficient.

It estimates half the population of Pakistan is at risk of thyroid-related problems, physical disabilities, mental disorders and other problems because of a lack of iodine in their food. 

Meet the thyroid 

The thyroid gland secretes a hormone called thyroxine – iodine is necessary for the production of this hormone. Low levels of iodine cause the thyroid to malfunction which in turn can cause a myriad of problems. Goitre is the most visible symptom of iodine deficiency – a painful enlargement of the thyroid gland which results in massive swelling around the neck and larynx. It causes subsequent problems in breathing and swallowing.

It is said 760 million people around the world suffer from goitre, primarily because of a lack of iodine; women are more prone to goitre. Iodine deficiency also causes preventable mental disorders. Pregnant women with iodine deficiency are at risk of damaging the foetal development of their child’s brain, a congenital condition known as cretinism. Cretinism also impacts physical growth. The survey estimates 72% of infants start their life with a lack of iodine. Every year 21% children are born with intellectual disabilities. At least 21% of the female population suffers from goitre because of an iodine deficiency. 

Cheap fix 

People in the province also lack awareness about the easy cure to the deficiency. They are unaware it costs only 25 paisas to meet the daily iodine requirement, emphasised Dr Atif. “An average adult requires one teaspoon of iodine over the course of a lifetime to prevent mental health illness, physical disabilities, stillbirths, miscarriages and congenital abnormalities.” Iodine deficiency is more prevalent in people who live far from the ocean – the best source of iodine.

Dr Atif explained at least 12 million people who live in the more mountainous areas of the province, like Chitral, Upper and Lower Dir, Swat, Gilgit-Baltistan, Shangla, Abbottabad and Kohistan are at high risk for iodine deficiency related health problems. At least 45% of Pakistani mothers are unaware of the adverse affects of this deficiency and around 5 million babies born in the country fail to fully develop because of low levels of maternal iodine.

Twenty eight countries in the world have legislation on iodine and subsequently the number of iodine-related health problems has declined in those countries, shared the UNICEF nutrition officer.

KP Reproductive Health and Nutrition Deputy Director Dr Qasir Ali explained iodine is essential for the healthy development of children. In hilly areas, especially in Chitral, one in every 10 people has goitre, added Ali. However, since 2008 the area has started using iodised salt – originally invented to promote the consumption of iodine – and now Chitral is slowly seeing an improvement. “A large percentage of children and women have goitre in the province. Many mothers miscarry and a large number of infants die prematurely,” added the doctor. 

A pinch of salt?

However, the solution to all this is simple – get salt manufacturers to add iodine to their product. Dr Ali shared the government included the use of iodine in the Favour Food Act in 2002 but it was never implemented.

At districts level, there are Favour Food committees which are working under the District Coordination Officer. These keep check on the industries of salt. According to the deputy director, they have fined business men up to Rs20,000 for not adding iodine to salt.–Express Tribune

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