September 2023

Remote populations face unique challenges in accessing essential healthcare services and vital nutrients. The 4 million indigenous Karen people who live along the borderlands of Thailand and Myanmar are an example of the crucial intersection of salt iodization, health equity, and the well-being of remote populations. Their access to basic healthcare and a diet that meets their nutritional needs has long been a challenge due to their geographical isolation.

Researchers from the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University, in collaboration with IGN and ETH University in Zurich, recognized the need to address the potential iodine deficiency among the Karen population, engaging people interested in the project and building a researcher team in each village. Local researchers, including village health volunteers, were actively involved in data collection and received additional training.

The study’s participants included school-aged children and women of reproductive age. Informed written consent was obtained from all participants or their guardians before enrollment in the study. ¬†While results are currently being analyzed, we know that the potential outcomes likely hold significant implications for the Karen community’s health and well-being, paving the way for health interventions such as salt iodization and education programs on the importance of iodine. The sentinel survey will highlight the unique challenges faced by remote and indigenous communities in accessing health and nutrition initiatives.

The research team in Laiwo subdistrict

Vulnerable populations like the Karen people are disproportionately affected by health disparities, often a result of a complex interplay of factors, including economic challenges, limited healthcare infrastructure, and geographical isolation. Ensuring that iodine deficiency is addressed comprehensively is not only a matter of public health, but also a crucial step in rectifying these broader disparities. Strengthening systems that fight inequities and creating sustainable programs is key. These programs should be designed not as short-term interventions but as long-term solutions that improve healthcare infrastructure, expand access to education, and empower communities.

Recognizing the cultural nuances, challenges, and aspirations of these communities, researchers from the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University collaborated closely with the Karen people. The result is not only new data but also the cultivation of a sustainable framework for future healthcare research and interventions. It also paints a compelling picture of the intertwined nature of global, national, and local collaborations in establishing sustainable salt iodization programs.

The study’s partnership with IGN and ETH Zurich signifies the global commitment to addressing health disparities among indigenous communities. The expertise and resources brought forth by these collaborations amplify the impact of local efforts. Through engagement with village authorities, community leaders, and the participation of local researchers, a foundation for lasting change is established. By weaving together national expertise with community-driven initiatives, salt iodization programs can be tailored to suit the unique needs of remote populations, thus ensuring their long-term effectiveness. We will share information as soon as the final study results are available.

By addressing potential iodine deficiency in this remote indigenous community, researchers are not only promoting physical well-being but also acknowledging the intrinsic value of diverse cultures and communities. This study reminds us that health equity is a collaborative endeavor that requires a global commitment to ensuring the well-being of all individuals, regardless of where they call home.