One of two big anniversaries for salt iodization is happening this week as Switzerland marks 100 years of salt iodization with a national symposium in Bern on October 6. The second - the 100th anniversary in the United States, will be celebrated in 2024.
The story of iodine began in 1811, when French chemist Bernard Courtois noticed that seaweed being burned to get potassium nitrate gave off a purple vapor identified as a new element – iodine. But it was more than a century later when iodine began to play a role in what became a major public health success that has protected the developing brains of hundreds of millions of children worldwide.
Writing in 1880, Mark Twain quoted a fellow traveller who said: “Well, I am satisfied, I have seen the principal features of Swiss scenery – Mont Blanc and the goiter – and now for home.” In the 19th century, before salt iodization began in Switzerland, goiter and cretinism were visible. In certain regions, almost 100% of children had large goiters and up to 30% of young men were unfit for military service for this reason. At the 1870 census 24.5 per 10,000 inhabitants were deaf mute.
In 1922, Swiss physician/surgeon Hans Eggenberger campaigned to improve iodine nutrition, petitioning the government to iodize salt, and working with his family to iodize and distribute it in his region. The positive results led to Switzerland’s modern, sustainable salt iodization program today. That in turn led in the 1990s to the creating of the Universal Salt Iodization campaign, a public/private partnership that has led to 89% of the global population having access to iodized salt, protecting the brains of hundreds of millions of children.
At the Bern symposium, organized by the Swiss Fluoride and Iodine Committee, the nation’s Academy of Medical Sciences and the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, health professionals and invited industrialists will review a century of progress and look towards future efforts to guarantee the iodine status of the population.
We hope they will also reflect with pride on Switzerland’s seminal role in achieving human progress through Universal Salt Iodization.