UNICEF Viet Nam representative Lotta Sylwander wrote for the Viet Nam News on what threatens to be a major problem for future generations.
Despite arriving in Viet Nam over two years ago, to this day I still import salt from my native Sweden.The reason for this is not an unconditional preference for Swedish salt, but a realisation that very little of the salt sold in Ha Noi’s markets is actually iodised. Because I was able to get a sufficient intake through iodised salt consumption as a child, my health would probably not be effected if I used non-iodised salt.
But, the impact of iodine deficiency on Viet Nam’s children is mind-boggling. Reports from national medical and research institutions indicate that tomorrow’s generation may fall short of their full intellectual and physical potential, simply because the food they eat does not contain enough essential vitamins and minerals.
More than half of all births are to iodine deficient mothers – limiting brain growth in the womb and mental development as infants. Cognitive test scores among children born to iodine-deficient mothers are up to 14 per cent lower than their peers. And the consequences can be far-reaching.
Delayed intellectual development and lower school achievement associated with childhood iodine and iron deficiency is linked to lifetime learning defects in 3-4 per cent of adults.
In 1999, mandatory regulations were issued and the nation’s salt industry responded positively. By 2005, quality iodised salt had reached more than 90 per cent of households and the affordabe iodised salt was welcomed by consumers.
This was underlined by population surveys revealing that iodine deficiency in the general population had been eradicated.
But the success was shortlived and Viet Nam’s transition to a free market economy caused a major setback.
A 2005 decree liberalising the salt industry did not include iodisation as a mandatory requirement. As a result, salt producers felt no obligation to continue with it.
|© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Perawongmetha
Today, less than half of Viet Nam’s households consume iodised salt and population surveys have found that nearly 80 per cent of pregnant women suffer from an iodine deficiency.
Protecting the growth and development of today’s children is the key to fuelling tomorrow’s economic and social development.
Providing more than half of the nation’s mothers and children with daily doses of iron and iodine is a huge task, one that is beyond the capacity of the health system. But, by adding small amounts of iodine during salt processing, iodisation takes advantage of the food distribution and market system to deliver safe effective amounts to all consumers on a daily basis.
Salt iodisation is feasible and affordable for Viet Nam. Producers are constantly modernising their methods and could easily adapt simple fortification technologies. Meanwhile, the cost of iodisation to salt producers is too small to notice – with a production cost increase of well below 1 per cent. Furthermore, the process causes no change to the taste, colour, or quality of salt and doesn’t impact on consumer behaviour.
For each US dollar invested in salt iodisation, the returns equate to as much as $30 in healthcare and investment.
According to the World Bank: “No other technology available today offers as great an opportunity to improve lives and accelerate development at such low cost and in such a short timeframe.”
It’s time to stem the tide of iodine deficiency in Viet Nam. And just as iodine deficiency was eliminated in 2004, it can be eliminated again by 2014.