Ready to learn

Kiwanis is bringing fresh urgency to its fight for the development of healthy young brains.

Story by Tony Knoderer

Since 1994, Kiwanis International has been fighting iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the world’s leading cause of preventable intellectual disabilities. A lot has happened in all those years — including the raising and leveraging of more than US$105 million by the Kiwanis family in a campaign that lasted until 2005. 

Since then, there’s been another advance: an understanding of the role that iodine and salt iodization fulfill in cognitive development. 

That knowledge has inspired a new urgency in Kiwanis’ efforts to give kids access to the nutrients they need for healthy brains. For instance, recent research has led the organization to focus on food fortification — particularly in women of reproductive age and babies and children up to age 5. 

Those first five years are especially crucial: That’s when 90% of brain growth is completed.  

Three Kiwanis causes
Health and nutrition is one of three causes that Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund have recently identified for the organization. The other causes are education and literacy and youth leadership development. All together, they create a continuum of impact on children’s lives. 

In other words, the three causes are the ways that Kiwanis and the Children’s Fund — through advocacy, fundraising and grant-making — will help ensure that children are ready to learn and ultimately ready to lead.   

“It’s about brain development, so kids are ready to learn when they go to school,” says Kiwanis International Executive Director Stan Soderstrom. 

 A founding member of the Iodine Global Network, Kiwanis will work closely on food fortification with other IGN members — as it did during the IDD campaign of 1994-2005. 

Werner Schultink

“(The IDD campaign) was one of the most successful public-health interventions in the past two or three decades,” says Werner Schultink, executive director of the IGN. “About 750 million people who historically would have had the markers of iodine deficiency, such as goiter and cretinism, don’t have it because of that work.” 

But salt is not iodized in all countries. And iodine nutrition has declined in some, as knowledge slips and complacency sets in — weakening factors like regulation and quality control. 

“Sometimes people will talk about iodine-deficiency ‘eradication,’ but that’s a misnomer,” says Jonathan Gorstein, senior program officer in nutrition for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and former executive director of the IGN. “You can rid the world of a virus with a vaccine, but with iodine deficiency the only way is through salt iodization in the foods we eat. And this needs to be sustained over time or there’s a risk of program slippage and declines.”  

Jonathan Gorstein

Combining expertise
The IGN is a nongovernment organization, or NGO, that resulted from the 2012 merger of two other NGOs: The International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD) and The Network for Sustained Elimination of Iodine Deficiency. 

The newly merged organization, initially called the ICCIDD Global Network, was renamed the Iodine Global Network two years later. 

“After UNICEF saw such impact (from the IDD campaign), it was thought important that at least one organization keep an eye on the situation,” Schultink says. “So, the two NGOs merged into the IGN, which would act as a watchdog and a repository of knowledge. So far, it’s working well.”

The reason, says IGN Board Chairman Michael Zimmerman, is the combination of expertise. The merger allowed a range of people, from endocrinologists and public-health scientists to program workers and others, to join forces — and resources.

“All the major actors in the iodine field are now nicely aligned and integrated in the IGN,” says Zimmerman, who is also a professor and head of the Human Nutrition Laboratory at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich. “It’s not as fragmented as it used to be. Everyone looks to the IGN as the organization to achieve our final goals.” 

Michael Zimmerman

A key connection 
The research itself has generated further optimism. Improved data collection has allowed a move beyond measuring access to household salt (a key goal of Kiwanis’ IDD fundraising campaign) to the more specific measuring of iodine consumption in kids. And the connection between small children’s iodine intake and their cognitive development has become clearer.  

A couple of findings: The addition of adequate iodine has provided an average increase of three to five IQ points in school-aged kids — and adequate iodine intake during pregnancy and infancy can increase IQ by eight to 10 points.

All of this has tremendous implications for kids’ development — from their readiness for their school years to their academic potential once they’ve started.

“Education depends on good buildings, good books and good teachers,” Zimmerman says. “But it also requires basic nutritional building blocks — and Kiwanis can contribute to this building block.” 

Soderstrom also notes the fit with the organization’s International Committee on Young Children.  

“We can help children learn,” he says. “That’s something we know we do well.”  

New ways of working 
Another factor in iodization’s success has been the growth of public-private partnerships.

“When I started, the private sector was kept at arm’s length,” says Jonathan Gorstein. “Their engagement was undervalued. But we came to understand the importance of getting the salt industry’s input.”

As Werner Schultink puts it: “Government doesn’t produce salt or add iodine to salt. The private sector does. But you do need government to set up the regulatory framework for the fortification of salt with iodine — and to set up control mechanisms.”

Food fortification is uniquely reliant on — and suited to — public-private solutions, Gorstein says. “Each has tremendous value. I think we’ve moved beyond mutual suspicion. We know now that we need a mutually supportive and celebratory relationship.”

Now Kiwanis is joining that relationship. And Kiwanis is needed. Considering both the opportunity around brain development and the need to shore up previous progress, fortification is truly a worldwide issue. Even in Europe, for example, 50% of newborns may be born iodine deficient. And the problem is present in the U.S. as well. 

 “What’s needed,” Schultink says, “are advocates to think about how we make sure knowledge on the topic stays on the table. Through your clubs and all your networks and partnerships, Kiwanis can play a role.”

For Kiwanis, that kind of relationship-building in the service of something larger is fundamental. 

“This is what we do,” Soderstrom says. “We benefit kids around the world. If we’re about children, from our mission to our foundational ideals, this is an important thing for us to do.”

Iodine Facts

1  The thyroid needs iodine to function. Our bodies must have adequate levels of thyroid hormones, and thus iodine, to grow and develop normally. 

2  Pregnant women need about 50% more iodine. Those who don’t consume essential vitamins and minerals, such as iodine, are at risk of having babies with low-birth weights, birth defects, blindness, intellectual disabilities, stillbirth and even death. 

3  We get iodine from the food we consume. Top sources include milk and dairy products like yogurt and cheese, as well as fish such as cod and tuna, seaweed, shrimp, other seafood and iodized salt. 

Fortifying salt with iodine remains the safest and most cost-effective strategy for the prevention of iodine deficiencies. 


This story originally appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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