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India’s Iodine-Carrying, ‘Life Saving’ Bindis Have Critics

FILE - A woman wearing a bindi waits after casting her vote at a polling station in the old quarters of Delhi.
FILE - A woman wearing a bindi waits after casting her vote at a polling station in the old quarters of Delhi.

Colorful facial adornments known as bindis have long been worn by women across South Asia as a fashion accessory or religious signifier, but now they also provide essential nutrients.

“Jeevan Bindi,” or “Life Saving Bindi,” contains iodine, which could help tens of millions of women in India who suffer from iodine deficiency.

The creators say the adhesive-backed felt bindis, which appear identical to ones that serve merely decorative purposes, dispense the daily dose of the essential element through the wearer’s skin.

It is estimated that more than 71 million Indians suffer from iodine deficiency disorders. Iodized salt has helped mitigate the problem in India, like it has in the rest of the world, but there are still millions in India who do not get enough iodine through their diet.

The medicated bindis are intended to change that, but critics say they could be slowing the adoption of dietary iodine.

Mothers at Risk

Iodine deficiency leads to a host of diseases like goiter, impaired mental development and thyroid disorder- which has been linked to breast cancer and fibroids.

Pregnant or nursing women are particularly in need because iodine deficiency can lead to children with low IQ or cretinism, a neurological disorder.

Neelvasant Medical Foundation and Research Center (NMFRC), an NGO in Maharashtra, is distributing the Iodine Bindi, targeting women of child-bearing age.

The medical campaign was conceived by Grey for Good, the philanthropic arm of Singapore-based advertising and marketing agency Grey Group Singapore (GGS).

In a pilot plan in March, NMFRC launched the Jeevan Bindi campaign to help around 100,000 mostly tribal village women in some poverty-stricken pockets of Maharashtra.

In the GGS-funded project, each woman is being handed out a strip of 30 Jeevan Bindis free for daily use over a month.

Each Jeevan Bindi is embedded with iodine along with the adhesive base of the bindi, said NMFRC president Dr. Prachi Pawar, who oversees the bindi distribution project in Maharashtra.

“One needs 150 to 200 micrograms of iodine daily. The absorption of iodine from the bindi takes place through the skin [sub-dermal absorption]. The bindi should be worn for at least four to five hours daily,” Pawar told VOA.

Bindis Encouraged Where Supplements Failed

In the tribal areas, where the bindis are being distributed for free, people are mostly using non-iodized crystal salts, leaving women largely iodine deficient, she said.

“There are iodine supplement pills. But that scheme has not worked well with the women as they are not used to taking pills regularly. But, this Jeevan Bindi project has been fighting iodine deficiency among the tribal women more effectively because they have good liking for the colorful bindis and are using them regularly,” she said.

The success of the campaign of Jeevan Bindi lies behind the idea of using the common fashion accessories as a dietary supplement said Nirvik Singh, the chairman and chief executive officer of Grey Group Asia Pacific.

“To help them lead a healthier life, yet be more accepting of the daily dose of iodine they needed, we had to think of something that is familiar and a part of their daily routine,” Singh said. “I think the beauty of the idea lay in the familiarization of the bindi and the simplicity in being able to implement the idea. These are probably the two main reasons why this program has been so successful.”

There are now plans to bring the program to more Indians, but critics say that plan could, in the long run, damage efforts to expand dietary iodine programs.

Skeptical Doctors

Dr. Chandrakant Pandav, professor and head of the Center for Community Medicine at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said that iodine supplementation is cheaper and more effective if it is ingested orally in the form of iodized salt.

“With these bindis they are seeking to address the problems of the women, while children and men are being left out. Iodine supplementation with iodized salt is still the best solution to fight iodine deficiency disorders not only in Indian condition, but globally,” said Dr. Pandav, who is also the South Asia coordinator of International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders.

He noted that previous research on iodine administered through the skin found that only about 12 percent of the solution was absorbed by the body. He said researchers cannot determine how much iodine is actually absorbed by the ‘Life Bindi’ wearers.

Other doctors, like Sujoy Majumdar, an endocrinologist in Kolkata, are calling for controlled trials of the bindis to determine their effectiveness.

“Apparently, there is no clinical evidence to suggest that this iodine bindi therapy actually works,” Majumdar said.