Screening for thyroid disease and iodine deficiency

Creswell J Eastman
Pathology 2012, 44 (2): 153-9
The high global prevalence of iodine deficiency and autoimmune thyroid disorders and the mental and physical consequences of these disorders creates a huge human and economic burden that can be prevented, in large part, by early detection and appropriate preventative or therapeutic measures. The availability of sophisticated, sensitive and accurate laboratory testing procedures provides an efficient and effective platform for the application of screening for these disorders. Measurement of urine iodine concentration (UIC) in school children or pregnant women is the recommended indicator for screening populations for iodine deficiency. The severity of the iodine deficiency is classified according to the UIC. Measurement of serum thyrotropin (TSH) as an indicator for population iodine deficiency is used only in neonates and is supplementary to UIC screening. Other indicators such as goitre rates, thyroid function and serum thyroglobulin levels are useful adjunctive but not frontline process indicators. The human and economic benefits of screening for congenital hypothyroidism by measurement of heel-prick TSH have been well documented and justify its universal application. Using this measurement for monitoring population iodine intake is recommended by the World Health Organization but further validation is required before it can be universally recommended. Subclinical thyroid dysfunction is readily detected by current highly sensitive serum TSH assays and its prevalence appears to increase with age, varies with iodine intake and ethnicity and may occur in up to 20% of older age people. Subclinical hyperthyroidism is the less common disorder and screening cannot be justified because of its low prevalence and minimal or insignificant clinical effects. The argument for screening for subclinical hypothyroidism in middle-aged and older women is stronger but lacks evidence of benefit from randomised controlled trials or cost benefit analyses of therapeutic intervention, so it cannot currently be recommended. The publication of recent Clinical Practice Guidelines for management of thyroid disease in pregnancy from the American Endocrine Society and American Thyroid Association provide persuasive arguments for early detection and treatment of overt and subclinical hypothyroidism to prevent obstetric complications and potential neurocognitive disorders in the offspring. Given the indisputable benefits of therapy, the sooner thyroid dysfunction is detected, before or as early as possible in gestation, the more likely there will be a better outcome. Because of the limitations of targeted case detection in women at risk of subclinical hypothyroidism, there has been a gradual shift in opinion to universal TSH screening of all women as soon as practicable in pregnancy. While a positive association exists between the presence of anti-thyroid antibodies and increased pregnancy loss, universal screening of all pregnant women for underlying autoimmune thyroid disease is difficult to justify until there is evidence of beneficial outcomes from randomised controlled trials. Vigorous and liberal targeted case detection remains the recommended strategy to address this problem.

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