The World Food Program and Micronutrient Initiative, a non-profit organization, are joining forces to end iodine deficiency disorder in millions of newborns at risk in developing countries. The agencies say iodine deficiency, a common form of hidden hunger, and the lack of other micronutrients in diets can cause severe disability and even death.
The United Nations estimates 1.7 billion people around the world are at risk of iodine deficiency disorder, including 43 million newborn babies. Iodine deficiency can lead to mental retardation in children and to goiter in adults.
Goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland that causes swelling in the front of the neck.
Iodine deficiency can be easily prevented by eating iodized salt. The World Food Program and Micronutrient Initiative are hoping to reach over half the developing world's newborns at risk by helping local salt manufacturers fortify their product with iodine.
The president of the Micronutrient Initiative, Venkatesh Mannar, says the project will focus on six countries - India, Pakistan, Sudan, Ghana, Senegal, and Haiti.
"These six countries represent about half of the world's burden today," he said. "Today we have nearly 43 million children being born without protection from mental impairment on account of iodine deficiency. Half of these children are being born in these six countries. Our hope is that by systematically tackling the salt that is produced and iodized and distributed in these countries, we can at least fill a part of the gap that is still before us. And, we have a global goal of trying to achieve universal iodization by 2010."
Mannar says Ghana and Senegal supply salt for all West African countries. He says five cents per person, per year is all it costs to prevent iodine deficiency.
The World Food Program has concentrated for 40 years on making sure people have enough to eat. But Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu says the WFP food basket often missed important micronutrients, such as Vitamin A.
She says lack of Vitamin A can cause blindness in children. It can increase their risk of dying from diarrhea, measles and malaria. She says the lack of zinc can cause similar problems. Another form of what she calls hidden hunger is caused by iron deficiency, which affects more than 3.5 billion people.
"Half of the world's population is not operating at full strength because iron deficiency does cause a lot of fatigue," she said. "And where more than half of pregnant women and school age children in the developing world suffer from iron deficiency, it increases the risk that mothers and infants bleed to death during childbirth. Because of the fatigue it causes, it weakens the body, it saps the energy and dulls alertness, making it hard for people to work."
Recent studies show that after HIV/AIDS, the second most cost-effective intervention globally is micronutrient deficiency. Economists say these deficiencies can cost a nation a loss of two to three percent of GDP.