By Lisa Schlein
The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, says Iodine Deficiency Disorders, which cause mental retardation, are a huge problem in Europe and Central Asia. UNICEF says this disorder can be solved for as little as five cents per person per year by iodizing salt.
In this video clip, UNICEF's regional ambassador and 16-time world chess champion, Anatoly Karpov, tells children they must have iodine in their diet, if they want to be smart. He repeats this message in a joking manner to a group of journalists.
"I can say,I can answer you like a joke that I believe that, when we solve the problem, every child will play chess," said Anatoly Karpov. "I believe that this is extremely important, so this is a problem we know how to solve. And one of the few problems we know how to solve."
Mr. Karpov comes from Russia, located in one of the regions of the world most seriously affected by iodine deficiency. UNICEF statistics show that more than half of the people in Western and Central Europe live in iodine-deficient countries. Surprisingly, some of the most developed countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany suffer from a lack of iodine. However, the problem is most severe in countries such as Russia and the Ukraine.
UNICEF says these two countries account for 1.3 million newborn babies a year, who are not protected from iodine deficiency. This out of five million iodine deficient babies born in all of the region's 22 countries.
Mr. Karpov says the babies suffer because their mothers did not include iodine in their diets when they were pregnant. He says, unfortunately, the mental retardation that results from iodine deficiency in the womb is not reversible in later life.
"We believe that the cheapest, simplest and general message, to avoid iodine deficiency, is general iodization of salt," he said. "And, it does not cost too much. It is about five cents per year, per person-very cheap."
Mr. Karpov says governments should pass legislation to make iodized salt mandatory. He says, in countries with such laws, iodine deficiency disorders have decreased. He notes this can be seen even in poor countries, such as Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Georgia.
UNICEF says governments often do not promote iodine in food out of ignorance or widely-held misconceptions. For example, it says India rescinded legislation on iodized salt under pressure from consumer groups. It says these groups claimed that iodine in salt causes a variety of health problems. Tragically, it says, by eliminating iodine from the diet, mental retardation among children in India, once again, is on the rise.
Lisa Schlein, for VOA News, Geneva.
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