GIS: improving health & lives in Pakistan by monitoring iodized salt

MI Pakistan´s Dr. Tausif Akhtar Janjua demonstrating Pakistan´s salt sector GIS.

MI Pakistan´s Dr. Tausif Akhtar Janjua demonstrating Pakistan´s salt sector GIS.

Imagine a tool that could help significantly reduce preventable brain damage, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet, by monitoring the quality of iodized salt produced.

In Pakistan, a country with a high incidence of iodine deficiency, such technology would be invaluable for its potential to improve the quality of life for millions.

“Pakistan’s GIS to monitor iodized salt is an excellent example of technology being used for public good to help the most vulnerable at a very low cost. This tool helps us monitor iodization levels and enables quick corrective action when we notice downward trends.”

Venkatesh Mannar

From left to right: MI´s Dr. Noor Ahmad Khan, Venkatesh Mannar, and Melanie Galvin with Mir Changez Khan Jamali, Federal Minister for Science & Technology at the launch of the USI-GIS mapping system in Islamabad.

From left to right: MI´s Dr. Noor Ahmad Khan, Venkatesh Mannar, and Melanie Galvin with Mir Changez Khan Jamali, Federal Minister for Science & Technology at the launch of the USI-GIS mapping system in Islamabad.

In Pakistan, this technology exists and is already well on its way to improving the health of the nation’s citizens through a project led by the Ministry of Health and for which the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) provided technical and financial support.

On March 22, 2011, Pakistan’s Ministry of Health launched the Geographic Information System (GIS) to monitor and improve salt iodization all across the country.

Under the project, District Focal Persons and USI Field Officers collect data on iodization levels at salt processors large and small.

The GIS mapping system can then create an easy access interactive digital map covering the amount of adequately iodized salt produced in each province and in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The mapping system contains complete information about 168 raw salt sources in Pakistan and information on the geographic locations, contact details and production of adequately iodized salt from 1353 salt processors. The data inputted into the GIS monitors the salt processors’ performance in terms of the iodized salt they produce and the quality of their salt.

Iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause of brain damage in the world. It can greatly impair brain development in utero and in the first few years of a child’s life.

In Pakistan, 76% of women and 64% of school age children are iodine deficient. At the launch, Dr. Baseer Khan Achakzai, National Program Manager at the Ministry of Health’s Nutrition Wing said, “Iodine deficiency in mothers can result in miscarriages and low birth weight of newborns,” and added that “children born with iodine deficiency suffer from low IQ and congenital abnormalities like deafness and stunted growth, among others.”

Because salt is almost universally used, even in impoverished areas, and is inexpensive to buy, it is an ideal vehicle to carry iodine and is a cost-effective way to prevent against iodine deficiency disorders.

At the launch, Dr. Achakzai stressed that “consumption of iodized salt is essential for people of all ages, especially for mothers and children under five years of age.”

“Pakistan’s GIS to monitor iodized salt is an excellent example of technology being used for public good to help the most vulnerable at a very low cost,” said MI President Venkatesh Mannar. “This tool helps us monitor iodization levels and enables quick corrective action when we notice downward trends.”

At the launch, Minister for Science & Technology, Mir Changez Khan Jamali outlined the potential benefits the GIS could have and said the, “mental capability of more than 38 million children worldwide can be enhanced if parents make iodized salt the essential part of their daily diet.”

By working with partners like MI, Pakistan’s Ministry of Health has developed a GIS tool that will significantly reduce the costs associated with data collection at different locations, data upload and trend report generation.

The mapping system collects data from salt processing sites every month, which ensures accurate and valid reporting.

“This technology provides information that will strengthen salt iodization in Pakistan and make the Universal Salt Iodization (USI) program more effective,” Mannar added.

In Dr. Achakzai’s apt words, “the whole world has recognized that investment in combating malnutrition provides the most beneficial returns and has lasting effects on the socio-economic development of marginalized sections of the society.”

The GIS project’s true value lies in it having empowered salt processors in Pakistan to help significantly improve the health of their fellow citizens, thereby acting as catalysts in the process that will allow the most marginalized to begin improving their lives and achieving exactly the kind of long-lasting socio-economic changes that Achakzai mentions.