UNICEF recognised him in 2004 for his contribution in elimination of IDD

It was 1983.

Gomchen Wangchuk, 49 then, had made up his mind. Alone, he headed to the Indian capital of Delhi.

It was no ordinary journey. He brought home Bhutan’s first iodised salt plant and thus began the country’s battle to eliminate iodine deficiency disorder (IDD).

Gomchen Wangchuk is 89 today. A familiar figure in Phuentsholing, he said he is content man with his iodised salt establishment known as Bhutan Salt Enterprises (BSE).

“Although I didn’t make much profit, I am happy I helped eradicate goiter,” he said. “The iodised salt even benefited animals in Bhutan.”

Originally from Trashigang, Gomchen Wangchuk came to Phuentsholing in 1970s. He used to serve in the royal court.

Initially, Gomchen Wangchuk tried the common salt business. He imported salt from across the border and distributed it in Bhutan. Later he decided to take up the supply of iodised salt and commit to his philanthropic passion.

BSE today produces about 800 bags of iodised salt from 8am until noon a day. Each year, the plant produces about 60,000 metric tonnes of iodised salt. One bag of iodised salt weighs 37.5kg and costs Nu 250. BSE sells a kilogram of iodised salt at Nu 12 a kg, a rate that is fixed by the trade department.

Gomchen Wangchuk’s journey from 1983 was not an easy one. Without any formal education, he had to compete with government officials to get the iodisation assistance from UNICEF in Phuentsholing.

“Prior to my visit to Delhi, two Bhutanese government officials had been there to pursue the same deal,” he said, adding that the UNICEF office then did not finalise the support with them. “But I got it.”

In 1983, findings also revealed the national goiter prevalence at 64.5 percent in Bhutan. Other problems like cretinism, retardation, slow brain and intelligence development in children and women were also high.

This also led UNICEF to provide support for the iodisation plant with machinery, equipment, laminated bags (to protect the iodised salt), and chemicals for iodisation.

According to Gomchen Wangchuk, UNICEF office in Delhi had told him initially that iodisation through injections would suffice in Bhutan and refused to help. But he was already doing salt business and it took only a week for him to convince UNICEF to support the iodisation of salt.

“UNICEF asked if I knew English and how I got the idea,” he said. “I think I answered them well.”

Three months after his visit to Delhi, equipment reached Phuentsholing. Iodised salt plant was set up and production began in 1984.

After he observed that the people thought salt should be in packets since a majority still bought salt from across the border, Gomchen Wangchuk said, BSE started packaging iodised salt in 2004.

The salt pioneer said that people should know that the BSE salt is better in quality with 50 percent Parts Per Million (PPM) content. Other salt brands from across the border do not have more than 30 percent PPM, Gomchen Wangchuk said, adding that some even have five to 15 percent PPM.

“The market was really down some years ago,” he said. “However, BSE salt packets are supplied to all corners in the country today.”

BSE with government support contributed to IDD-elimination. Within a period of five years from 1985, IDD impact study showed that iodised salt had reached villages across the country and it had significantly helped reduce goiters, stillbirths in pregnant women, and mental retardation.

UNICEF’s international mid-decade goal was to take iodised salt to about 95 percent of the homes in the country by 2000. By early 2000, diseases related to IDD drastically dropped in Bhutan with more than 90 percent of the population consuming iodised salt.

In 2003, Bhutan completely eliminated iodine deficiency. WHO representative for Bhutan, Dr rui Paulo de Jesus, in a recent interview with Kuensel also mentioned “that goiter, a common feature in the past, is a rarity now as iodine deficiency has been eliminated in 2003.”

Nutritionist Laigden Dzed, who is also the programme officer with nutrients programme at the health ministry, said Bhutan has been able to maintain the IDD-elimination status since 2003. A study was also conducted in 2010 to check whether the IDD-elimination status was sustaining. “We have been able to do so,” he said.

He said a national nutrition survey was carried out in 2015.

Although the survey report is not yet published, the programme officer said they considered a small component on household coverage of iodised salt.

“We have found more than 99 percent coverage,” Laigden Dzed said. “The risk is very less and we are comfortable.”

IDD-elimination is no more an issue, Laigden Dzed said. However, another round of scientific study will be done in the 12th Plan, he added.

Meanwhile, at the BSE factory, Gomchen Wangchuk opens up an old album. It has photographs of the day the BSE was launched. At least 18 officials were there, he recalls, showing the pictures.

“UNICEF representative from Delhi was also present,” he said.

Subrata Chanda, a chemist who joined the factory in 1984 also witnessed the historic launching. “I just had graduated then and joined BSE,” he said.

Subrata Chanda, who is 54 today, is the closest and a trusted employee of Gomchen Wangchuk. The two had often been to old iodine salt factories in Kolkata to study the iodisation chemistry.

“It has been a peaceful and satisfying career,” he said, adding that he found a wonderful employer. “I will retire with this company.”

The plant at BSE is the second after the first one was installed in 1983. Gomchen Wangchuk had also availed a loan of about Nu 1.6 million (M) from Bank of Bhutan, which has been repaid.

In 2004, UNICEF recognised Gomchen Wangchuk for his role in bringing iodised salt and contributing to elimination of IDD. He has also contributed in construction of mani dungkhars and a lhakhang.

Gomchen Wangchuk’s beard has turned the colour of the salt he produces. The 89-year-old stands up with the help of a cane and walks about his factory, an establishment that helped eliminate goiter in the country.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing