More than 60 percent of mothers and young children in Cambodia are suffering from dangerously low levels of iodine in what a new study describes as a “serious public health problem.”
Members of poor, rural communities exhibited especially low levels of urinary iodine, a lack of which can lead to thyroid disorders and stunt physical and mental development, the study shows.
Published last week in the journal Nutrients, the study partially attributes the problem to a decline in the availability of iodized salt—the primary source of the nutrient in Cambodia. A 2014 survey by Unicef found that more than 60 percent of salt inspected in the country did not meet regulatory standards, up from 22 percent in 2011.
Unicef stopped funding iodine procurement in Cambodia in 2010.
Nearly three-quarters of the 736 mothers and two-thirds of the 950 children under the age of 5 examined as part of the 2014 Cambodian Micronutrient Survey are suffering from iodine deficiency, according to the study.
The odds of having a low urinary iodine concentration “were almost halved for mothers and reduced by two-thirds for children if they belonged to the richest socio-economic category as compared to the poorest,” its says.
Iodine allows for normal functioning of the thyroid and is used by cells to convert food into energy, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Left untreated, iodine deficiency can impede mental development and severely stunt physical growth, warns the World Health Organization.
Although a 2003 sub-decree makes the iodization of salt mandatory in Cambodia, according to the new study, its authors—including representatives of Unicef, the National Nutrition Program and the Agriculture Ministry—recommend stronger enforcement of existing regulations and a lower mandatory level of iodine.
“It is essential to sustain strong enforcement from the government and ensure that everyone has access to affordable and adequately iodized salt,” the study says.
Health Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.