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Iodine deficiency still threatens two billion people worldwide: WHO

Tue Dec 21,12:22 PM ET Health - AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - Two billion people worldwide do not consume enough iodine despite a 50 percent drop in the number of countries where iodine deficiency, which can cause brain damage, is a public health problem, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

"Iodine deficiency is a major threat to the health and development of people worldwide, particularly pre-school children and pregnant women," said Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, director general of the UN's health body.

A new WHO report shows that the number of nations where iodine deficiency is a public health problem fell to 54 in 2003 from 110 a decade earlier thanks to programmes to encourage the use of iodized salt in food.

Globally, the UN Children's Fund estimates that 66 percent of households have access to iodized salt, but the WHO warned that more must be done.

"Iodine deficiency affects the brain development of children while they are in the womb," said Bruno de Benoist, the physician who wrote the report.

It can hamper a child's performance at school and also, when they grow up, in the work place, which ultimately has a negative impact on a country's economy, he told a news conference in Geneva.

The report, Iodine Status Worldwide, found that iodine deficiency was a mild problem in 40 of the 54 trouble countries and a moderate or severe issue in 14.

It "draws attention to a problem that is little-known. Iodine deficiency affects two billion people in all the countries of the world, including Europe," de Benoist said.

He later explained to AFP that not all these people suffered from the condition, but they were at risk due to insufficient iodine in their diet.

The problem of iodine deficiency was most severe in Africa, where six coutries were grouped in the moderate to severe category, while in Europe there was only one, Albania, said de Benoist.

Europe, however, had the highest number of countries out of the different regions in the world where the problem was reported as mild, he said, listing Russia and the Ukraine as among 15 problem cases.

At the same time, iodine intake in 29 nations was too high, which could result in iodine-induced thyroid dysfunction, WHO said.

The agency aims to eliminate iodine defficiency in the world by 2005.
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