After years of turmoil and economic hardship, the small West African nation of Guinea Bissau is facing a health challenge caused by the absence of iodine in the nation's diet. In countries where iodine is not already present in commonly eaten foods, it is typically added to salt. However, health workers say Guinea Bissau's clinics see many children with swollen necks and others suffering from conditions related to a deficiency of the essential element. Kari Barber reports from Dakar with additional reporting by Alpha Jallow in Guinea Bissau's capital.

At a small clinic in Bissau, health worker Alimatou Emballo mixes a medicine to treat a baby suffering from an enlarged thyroid gland, located at the neck.

Emballo says she sees a lot of children come in with painfully swollen necks and mothers who are unable to breastfeed because of fatigue related to iodine deficiency.

She says she treats them with a mixture of modern and traditional medicines and local cereals.

She says the combination works.

According to a United Nations report, 17 percent of the population of Guinea Bissau suffers from an enlarged thyroid gland, or goiter, because of iodine deficiency. Some doctors in the former Portuguese colony say that number may be higher.

Other common health problems related to iodine deficiency include fatigue, depression, dwarfism, cretinism and brain damage in infants.

Guinea Bissau, like many poor nations, suffers from a high rate of iodine deficiency because most people do not buy treated salt. Many in Guinea Bissau get their salt by evaporating salt water.

Iodine can be found in certain types of seafood and in plants grown on iodine-rich soil. But without iodized salt, many people develop deficiencies.

Mariama Wade brought her baby to the clinic to be treated for a stomach ache and a swollen neck.

Wade says she is relieved that her baby has been treated and is feeling better.

Public health officials say putting iodine in salt is one of the cheapest and most effective ways a country can improve its overall health. It costs just over $1 to treat one ton of salt.

However, doctors in the country say it is not the cost that is preventing those in Guinea Bissau from adding iodine to their salt, it is breaking old habits that is proving to be a challenge.