ABU DHABI // Health experts say simple table salt is key to eliminating iodine deficiencies but only the right kind of table salt. The Ministry of Health said yesterday that most salt used in the UAE does not contain enough iodine, and it will launch inspections to ensure the right kind is sold in groceries and used in restaurants.
The move is part of a scheme to stamp out iodine deficiencies in children within five years. More than 40 per cent of UAE children had such deficiencies in 1994 but that number dropped to eight per cent last year, according to a ministry study. Iodine deficiencies can cause physical and developmental problems. "Iodine deficiency is a major cause of mental retardation worldwide, which is preventable," said Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the executive director for health policies at the ministry. Iodine deficiency can also lead to thyroid gland inflation.
Dr Fikri said that only iodised table salt should be sold in grocery stores to ensure people receive their recommended daily intake of iodine. The ministry said that only 7.5 per cent of the salt used in the UAE contained the international recommendation of 15mg of iodine per kilogram of salt. The ministry did not reveal details of how it would require the sale of certain brands of salt to be used for cooking and for everyday consumption, but officials indicated the scrutiny would extended to establishments such as bakeries and restaurants.
The ministry conducted studies in 1994 and 2009 to measure to the level of iodine in schoolchildren and examine the types of salt used in their homes. More than 1,100 boys and girls from public schools had samples of their urine analysed for iodine, and were asked to bring in a pinch of the salt they use at home for evaluation. "In 1994, we found that 40 per cent of students had inflated thyroid glands, and that number dropped significantly to eight per cent of students in 2009," Dr Fikri said.
The 1994 study also showed that 67 per cent of children did not have enough iodine in their daily diet, and only 6.5 per cent of households consumed iodized salt. The 2009 study showed a marked improvement: 94 per cent of households now use iodized salt. Despite the improvement, studies have shown that only 42 per cent of those surveyed had an adequate amount of iodine in their urine, with 21 per cent exhibiting insufficient amounts of iodine and 37 per cent showing too much iodine.
Dr Hussein Izzeldin, the regional coordinator of the International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, said families might not be using salt that contains the right amount of iodine. "Yes, people are using iodized salt, but they are either using the wrong kind, or consuming too little salt or too much salt," he said. "People need to be educated about this." This is not a public call for people to increase their salt intake, Dr Izzeldin stressed.
"In hot areas like the UAE, no more than five grams of salt or one tablespoon is needed a day, at the most, and two grams are actually sufficient, especially if it is the right sort of iodized salt," he said. Chronic-disease patients who are advised to decrease their salt intake, such as patients with high blood pressure, can ensure they are taking in sufficient amounts of iodine if low-sodium, iodized table salt is available in the market.
"What we're saying is that people need to make sure that even the minute amounts of salt they are using is iodized," Dr Izzeldin said. Excessive use of iodine is also harmful, leading to hyperthyroidism and increased blood pressure, so a balance is crucial. Dr Huda al Suwaidi, the deputy director of research and statistics at the ministry, is part of the committee working on future rules and regulations, based on the results of the 2009 study.
"We hope to eradicate iodine deficiency in the UAE within five years," she said. The UAE is the first country in the region to conduct any sort of study on the prevalence of iodine deficiency in schoolchildren. Dr Fikri is confident the findings will help the UAE in its plans to rid the country of the disease. "Iodine deficiency affects children most of all because it slows down their brain growth and mental development, so testing them is the best indicator for us on whether or not we are addressing the problem of iodine deficiency," he said.