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An international network pledged this week (8 May) to eliminate iodine deficiency — the single greatest cause of preventable mental and development disabilities — within three years.

The Network for Sustained Elimination of Iodine Deficiency — a partnership of public, private and UN agencies launched today in New York — aims to build on current global efforts to reduce iodine deficiency by adding iodine to salt.

In the past decade, such efforts have had considerable success: since 1990, the proportion of households consuming iodised salt in developing nations has risen from 20 to 70 per cent.

The new initiative intends to "go the extra mile to get the get the last 30 per cent of areas covered", says Venkatesh Mannar, president of the Micronutrient Initiative, a Canada-based organisation that belongs to the network.

The network takes a new approach, Mannar says, by creating a formal relationship between the public and private sectors in the field, and putting the onus of tackling iodine deficiency firmly on the salt industry.

"The salt companies and their associations now realise that they are taking over principle responsibility in making sure salt is iodised," he says. "The commercial sector is taking responsibility for what is a public problem."

Salt iodisation is relatively cheap, costing only three to five cents per person per year, a price so low that even consumers in least developed countries barely notice it.

But there is a big variation in the level of salt iodisation in different countries. For example, more than 95 per cent of salt consumed in China is iodised, whereas in Pakistan and the Philippines, the figure is 20 per cent.

"We now have a fairly accurate map of where the problems are," says Mannar. "Now we're going to go after those areas."

Iodine deficiency can reduce intelligence levels, and extreme cases can cause severe medical conditions such as cretinism and goitre.

It is especially devastating for pregnant women and their children, causing miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. Neuromuscular, speech and hearing abnormalities are common among the children of iodine deficient mothers.

"By eliminating iodine deficiency, we are protecting newborns and children from brain damage and therefore contributing to breaking the cycle of poverty," says Jack Ling, chair of the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders.

And the need to sustain these efforts is paramount, says Mannar. "Unlike with communicable disease, once iodine deficiency has been reduced, it can always come back as a problem," he says.

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