About 19 million babies born globally every year are at risk of permanent yet preventable brain damage and reduced cognitive function due to a lack of iodine in the earliest years of life.
A UN-backed report released on Thursday said the figure represents 14 per cent of the total global population of children, according to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Senior Nutrition Adviser, Roland Kupka.
The report from UNICEF and its partner, the Global Alliance of Improved Nutrition (GAIN), noted that insufficient iodine during pregnancy and infancy resulted in neurological and psychological deficits, reducing a child’s IQ by eight to 10 points.
“The nutrients a child receives in the earliest years of life influence their brain development for life, and can make or break their chance of a prosperous future.
“By protecting and supporting children’s development in early life, we are able to achieve immense results for children throughout their lifespan,” he added.
The UNICEF official noted that salt iodization was both cost effective and economically beneficial at only 0.02 to 0.05 dollar per child annually.
According to him, every dollar spent on salt iodization is estimated to return 30 dollars through increased future cognitive ability.
Titled “Brighter futures: Protecting early brain development through salt iodization,” the report also notes that more than one in four affected children – 4.3 million – lives in South Asia.
While South Asia is home to the largest proportion of babies at risk globally, the region has the second highest iodized salt coverage rate at 87 per cent of the population, preceded by East Asia and the Pacific at 91 per cent coverage.
The lowest coverage with iodized salt was seen in Eastern and Southern Africa, where around 25 per cent of the population do not have access to iodized salt, leaving 3.9 million babies every year unprotected against iodine deficiency disorders.
The earliest moments of life, from conception up to age two, are the most critical for a child’s development, UNICEF said.
It added that nutrition, along with protection and stimulating activities like play and early learning, during a child’s first 1,000 days shape brain development for life.
The report outlined urgent steps to reduce the risk of mental impairment to babies’ growing brains.
This includes the integration of salt iodization into national plans to support children’s nutrition and brain development in early childhood and the establishment of surveillance systems to identify unreached populations.