In the rural pockets of India, a lifesaving device may be hidden in plain sight.
Across the country, it's not uncommon to see women sporting a small dot on their foreheads between their eyebrows. The mark is known as a bindi. And it's a Hindu tradition that dates to the third and fourth centuries.
The bindi is traditionally worn by women for religious purposes or to indicate that they're married. But today the bindi has also become popular among women of all ages, as a beauty mark. And it comes in all colors, shapes and sizes.
Now an initiative called Life Saving Dot is trying use bindis to deliver an essential micronutrient to women who might not be getting enough.
Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones. Too little can cause a number of problems, such as depression, weight gain and cognitive impairment. During pregnancy, iodine is critical for brain development of the fetus. Deficiencies can lead to mental problems for the child or even death.
In India, about 350 million people are at risk for iodine deficiency because they live in areas where crops are grown in iodine-deprived soil. And about a third of families don't have access to iodized salt.
So what if a bindi could somehow give women the iodine they need?
That's the idea behind a new campaign from the Neelvasant Medical Foundation and Research Centre, a nonprofit based in Nashik, India. The organization worked with the creative ad agency Grey Group Singapore to come up with a way to coat the back of bindis with iodine. The hope is that the iodine will adsorb into a woman's skin as she wears it, says Dr. Prachi Pawar, who's leading the project at the nonprofit.
Iodine can be absorbed through the skin, Pawar says, but the group is still conducting research to see how effective the bindis are at preventing iodine deficiency. If it works, it would be a low-cost nutritional supplement at just 10 rupees — or 16 cents — for a packet of 30 bindis.
"There are patch systems for many medicines now, so the bindis are a really cool idea," says Michael Zimmermann, nutrition researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "But it would have been more satisfying — and convincing — if [the organizers] had done a bit of work beforehand to show that it actually delivers iodine."
It's still unknown whether the iodine stays on the dots, says Roland Kupka, senior micronutrient adviser for UNICEF. "If women wear the bindis in the sun and under harsh conditions, it would really be a shame to see the iodine evaporate after a certain amount of time," he says.
"But it's excellent to see interest in addressing iodine deficiency in India given that iodine is so important for brain development," Kupka adds.
Even if the bindis don't work as well as hoped, there's another goal of the campaign, Pawar says: to create awareness about iodine deficiency. Many people simply don't know what iodine does, she says. So when it comes to buying salt, many families opt for cheaper alternatives.
So far, the iodine-packed bindis have reached more than 30,000 women in roughly 100 villages that the Indian government says are at high risk for iodine deficiencies, Pawar says.