The latest national study in Yemen delivered some good news: despite food insecurity due to ongoing conflict, iodine nutrition is adequate – but just barely. Not only is the country in danger of slipping into sub-optimal iodine levels, but a large swath of the population, and especially those living in Highland regions in the mountains, are deficient, and currently vulnerable to brain damage and developmental disabilities.
The Iodine Global Network is working together with key partners to raise the alarm to authorities and international humanitarian organizations to urgently accelerate the salt iodization program.
In Yemen, conflict and humanitarian disaster have left 17 million people food insecure and two thirds of the population in need of humanitarian or protection aid, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
“In the midst of other health and humanitarian needs in Yemen, the achievement of optimal iodine nutrition is within reach.”
– Izzeldin Hussein, IGN Regional Coordinator for MENA
As the crisis continues, and many people remain dependent on food assistance, the elimination of iodine deficiency could be one of Yemen’s more attainable humanitarian relief goals. According to Dr. Izzeldin Hussein, IGN Regional Coordinator for the Middle East & North Africa, “In the midst of other health and humanitarian needs in Yemen, the achievement of optimal iodine nutrition is within reach.”
A population survey conducted in 2015 measured urinary iodine concentration (UIC) across the country at a median UIC of 101 micrograms/liter, just within the World Health Organization threshold of what is considered healthy.
A strong foundation is already in place to develop an effective USI program. Salt production in Yemen is highly concentrated, making it easier to monitor the quality of iodized salt. The government has endorsed policy to support USI. But in practice, the program needs a kick-start, and a number of critical enhancements. Salt producers need technical support that will allow them to integrate the iodization step in salt processing. And a sustainable supply of potassium iodate––the most common iodine compound added to the salt––is essential.
Increasing the supply of iodized salt would ensure pregnant women have healthy thyroid function, and protect newborns from brain damage. Iodized salt could not only help to defray some of the hardship of war, but safeguard the educational potential–and through it, the economic future–of Yemen’s youngest generation, tomorrow’s leaders and architects of peace.
Collecting data for the study was itself a tremendous accomplishment in the midst of conflict on the ground, according to Hussein, who provided technical support. The study was conducted by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF and WHO, with technical assistance from the IGN, and funded by USAID and the European Commission.
Among the countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, Yemen has been one of the last to achieve adequate population iodine nutrition. But it has the chance to achieve the success of its neighbors with Universal Salt Iodization (USI).
Dr. Hussein adds: “Yemen is one of the priority countries in the MENA region, and we need to find ways to help. Even in the midst of other health and humanitarian needs in Yemen, the achievement of optimal iodine nutrition is within reach.”