Workers carry crude salt to the factory in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

This op-ed was originally published in The Daily Star on February 7, 2021.

Despite steep challenges, including frequent natural disasters, poverty rates, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh has defied the odds to make progress in its development goals. It bucked the global recession during the pandemic year, with 5.1% GDP growth in 2020 – the highest growth rate in the South Asia region. The country has also made significant headway in reducing infant mortality rates and increasing life expectancy.

Now, Bangladesh is taking another step to improve national health outcomes, with the Iodized Salt Bill currently in front of parliament. This is not just a piece of legislation. It is a real commitment to human development.

Iodine is an essential micronutrient, especially critical during fetal development and in the first few years of a child’s life. Iodine deficiency can result in lifelong cognitive disability and impairment, goiter and even death. Every year, approximately 16.2 million babies are born in developing countries without adequate iodine and nearly one billion people globally remain at risk of iodine deficiency.

Salt iodization has been one of the world’s most successful public health campaigns in recent decades and is the most effective way to combat iodine deficiency. It is also one of the most cost-effective interventions, costing less than US $0.05 per capita per year. As of 2020, 108 of 139 low-and-middle income countries have legislation on universal salt iodization.

Bangladesh has done a remarkable job in bringing down once-epidemic levels of goitre and thyroid disease. In the mid-1990s, 47% of the population suffered from goitre. Today, that number is well below 6%. Yet only 57.6% of households use adequately iodized salt, meaning that about 68 million households consume inadequately iodized salt, leaving them vulnerable to iodine deficiency disorders.

This new law seeks to close this gap and improve availability of adequately iodized salt. The Iodized Salt Bill, when enacted, mandates that all edible salts, including salt used for livestock and the production of processed food items for human consumption, be iodized at 30-50 parts per million. It brings in clear and standardized guidelines for salt production, stocking, import and marketing, and mandates registration of manufacturers sellers and importers. The new law also increases penalties for violations.

Akhil Ranjan Tarafdar, the project director of the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (CIDD) project, is confident the new legislation will increase adequately iodized salt coverage to 100%. The CIDD project has been instrumental in reducing iodine deficiency in the country.

We at Nutrition International are also excited about the potential of this new legislation to increase coverage of iodized salt and further reduce incidences of iodine deficiency disorders in the country. For the last 15 years, we have been working with government, salt producers and citizens to improve salt iodization in Bangladesh. From providing technical support to salt processors and the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation, upgrading laboratories, supporting maintenance of iodization plants, introducing new technology, and training CIDD project officials, we are proud to have contributed to national salt iodization efforts. This bill is the culmination of our long-standing partnership.

Nutrition International has been at the forefront of cost-effective, scalable nutrition interventions globally and is a champion of universal salt iodization. Our work in Bangladesh has supported efforts for universal salt iodization, as well as vitamin A supplementation, rice fortification, behaviour change interventions, and improving affordability of nutritious foods. We deliver targeted interventions for women, girls and children – and work with them – to ensure they have the nutrition they need to thrive.

The Iodized Salt Act will help to increase access to an important micronutrient and improve the health of the population. And for the country’s children, this is a huge step forward in ensuring that they can grow fully and develop properly, giving them a better chance to have a healthy, happy life and reach their full potential.