Cherish your thyroid


It’s 25 May and World Thyroid Day is back again. Although not the most noted and recognised organ by the public (except when discussing about Iodine deficiencies), the thyroid gland is in fact, one of the most crucial glands in the human body, crucial for a person’s growth and development from the moment we are born.

Located at the front of the neck, the thyroid gland looks like a butterfly (in an odd way) with the way it is shaped. Connected to what is called the endocrine system, the thyroid gland’s main job is to secrete two hormones; Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). Together, these two hormones control a lot of the body’s functions including a person’s growth and metabolism among others. An imbalance in the levels of these two hormones can lead to lack of energy, increased heart rate and a number of other medical complications.

Needless to say, the impact is much greater for developing children. An imbalance of T3 and T4 hormones could lead to complications in growth as well as the cognitive development of a child, stunting the potential that each child has.

Realising this, the Sri Lankan healthcare system ensures that every newborn child is tested to detect if any congenital complications exists in the thyroid gland to prevent any potential impediment to the development of the child if left untreated.

As valuable as this service is, due to the vast volume of tests conducted throughout the country, obtaining the report can be delayed to a degree, sometimes several months in fact. Sadly, this is usually unavoidable even with consulting with most private hospitals as most hospitals – public and private – forward their tests to the same facility.

However, Ceylon Today found Ninewells Hospital to be the exception, having their very own in-house screening facility; reportedly the only private hospital able to do so. With only one public hospital able to provide the screening, Ninewells Hospital sets itself apart being one of the only two hospitals able to provide said screening and reports within a few days, preventing crucial time that would otherwise have been lost with no medical intervention.

“We test all the samples taken from children in-house, and ensure that the reports are delivered to the parent by the time they come for their second-week visit to the paediatrician,” explained head of the Neo-natal ICU unit, Dr. Samurdhi Wickramanayake, who explained that in the test, medical professionals search for the existence of TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) in the newly-born child’s blood from a sample collected after making a small prick at the foot.

She explained that early detection is the key to prevent any effect to the retardation of brain development which could happen as a result. Identifying any retardation in growth and development in these early days can be difficult, but can have lasting effects as a child develops. “By the time they get to that level, it can be too late at that point.”

If any issue is detected, the child will directly counsel with a paediatric endocrinology expert. “The earlier any problem is identified, the better chance we have at preventing any long term effect.”

According to Dr. Wickramanayake, Ninewells hospitals have had this special testing unit since the beginning of 2021. “During the time of operation, we have been able to identify quite a few babies who were in need of treatment and provide them immediately.”

Of course, a main concern for parents would be if there is any way to prevent such complications arising from the first place. Fortunately, the screening is conducted in order to detect any problem as early as possible to prevent further complications in the future. Although genetics do have a part to play in the chances of having a thyroid complication, the best thing an expecting mother can do is to ensure her thyroid hormones are well balanced.

Detection is the best move when prevention doesn’t have a lot of options, and thankfully Sri Lanka’s healthcare system is one that has been providing for the citizens of the country to the best of their ability, and with the opportunity to pay for a faster service through private hospitals, it’s clear that parents have the opportunity to provide for the best care they can possibly give to the children that they welcome to this world, and it is reassuring that vital aspects to a child’s development such as the level of thyroid hormones in the body are accounted for.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage