Iodine deficiency still a problem

Iodine deficiency is still a problem in Australia today and about 30% of the world’s population remains at risk of the preventable condition that can cause everything from mild learning difficulties to severe retardation, cretinism and stillbirth. That is the message from Australian scientific statesman Dr Basil Hetzel more than 40 years after his seminal studies illuminated iodine’s essential role in brain development. In Papua New Guinea in the 1960s Dr Hetzel’s research team was the first to prove that brain damage could be prevented by correcting iodine deficiency before pregnancy; he went on to spearhead an international campaign working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF that has seen iodine supplementation programs jump from covering 20% of the world’s population before 1990 to around 70% today. Despite the progress that has been made – it’s estimated more than 80 million newborns have been protected from iodine deficiency through iodised table salt alone – Dr Hetzel says much more work needs to be done. “We’ve seen incredible success in places like China, where they’ve managed to address this problem by making it a major priority, but there are still countries, such as those in central and western Africa, where poor infrastructure, war and low levels of education make it harder to reach people,” he says. “There still is a real deficiency in parts of Australia. There’s good evidence that school children are affected and they’re not getting enough iodine; it’s a matter of some urgency that intake is increased. “I’ve seen the impact that iodine supplementation can make – in countries like Papua New Guinea and Nepal, where they used to see a lot of cretinism and goitres, those things have disappeared. But it takes a lot of organisation and there are still two billion people at risk, so much more work remains to be done.”

Science Alert, 5 July 2012 ; ;