Thyroid diseases are, arguably, among the commonest endocrine disorders worldwide. India too, is no exception. According to a projection from various studies on thyroid disease, it has been estimated that about 42 million people in India suffer from thyroid diseases.

This page will focus on the epidemiology of five common thyroid diseases in India:

(1) Hypothyroidism

(2) Hyperthyroidism

(3) Goiter and Iodine Deficiency Disorders

(4) Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

(5) Thyroid cancer

Thyroid diseases are different from other diseases in terms of their ease of diagnosis, accessibility of medical treatment, and the relative visibility that even a small swelling of the thyroid offers to the treating physician. Early diagnosis and treatment remain the cornerstone of management.

(1) Hypothyroidism

Among the various varieties of hypothyroidism, congenital hypothyroidism is probably the most important, as it is requires an early diagnosis, which is usually followed by appropriate therapy that can prevent the onset of brain damage. Studies from Mumbai have suggested that congenital hypothyroidism is common in India, the disease occurring in 1 out of 2640 neonates, when compared with the worldwide average value of 1 in 3800 subjects. There is often a delay in the diagnosis of congenital hypothyroidism in the country. This delay is attributable to the lack of awareness about the illness, as well as the lack of facilities available or screening program in place to comprehensively screen and test newborns for this illness.

In childhood too, hypothyroidism can occur. In a clinic-based study from Mumbai, out of 800 children with thyroid disease, 79% had hypothyroidism. Common causes of hypothyroidism in these children were thyroid dysgenesis, dyshormonogenesis, and thyroiditis.

Among adult people in India, the prevalence of hypothyroidism has been recently studied. In this population-based study done in Cochin on 971 adult subjects, the prevalence of hypothyroidism was 3.9%. The prevalence of subclinical hypothyroidism was also high in this study, the value being 9.4%. In women, the prevalence was higher, at 11.4%, when compared with men, in whom the prevalence was 6.2%. The prevalence of subclinical hypothyroidism increased with age. About 53% of subjects with subclinical hypothyroidism were positive for anti-TPO antibodies.

(2) Hyperthyroidism

The prevalence of hyperthyroidism has been studied in several studies. In an epidemiological study from Cochin, subclinical and overt hyperthyroidism were present in 1.6% and 1.3% of subjects participating in a community survey. In a hospital-based study of women from Pondicherry, subclinical and overt hyperthyroidism were present in 0.6% and 1.2% of subjects. More than a third of community-detected hyperthyroid cases have positive anti-TPO antibodies, and about 39% of these subjects have a goiter.

(3) Goiter and Iodine Deficiency

Recent population studies have shown that about 12% of adults have a palpable goiter. Autoimmune thyroid disease is probably commoner than iodine deficiency as a cause of goiter in areas that are now iodine sufficient. However, given that iodine deficiency is a problem in India, the importance of iodine deficiency cannot be underestimated in the Indian context.

The link between endemic goiter and iodine deficiency has been researched in India by several eminent researchers, and this has led to the publication of several important reports. Critical research has resulted in endemic goiter being reported from all over the country and not just from the Himalayan and Sub-Himalayan regions. Researchers from New Delhi had shown that this was linked to iodine deficiency and that this resulted in decompensated hypothyroidism in many cases. This led to landmark studies which showed that iodine deficiency was associated with hypothyroidism in neonates, setting the scene for the now legendary salt iodization program supported by the Government of India. Subsequent to this program, it was shown that in selected regions of Uttar Pradesh, the prevalence of congenital hypothyroidism had come down from 100 per 1000 to 18 per 1000.

However despite iodization, the prevalence of goiter has not dramatically declined.

(4) Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

Population studies have suggested that about 16.7% of adult subjects have anti-thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies and about 12.1% have anti-thyroglobulin (TG) antibodies.

In a landmark study of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in India, 6283 schoolgirls from all over the country were screened. Among them, 1810 schoolgirls had a goiter. Among them 764 subjects underwent a fine needle aspiration cytology, and of these subjects, 58 (7.5%) had evidence of juvenile autoimmune thyroiditis (the term included both Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and focal lymphocytic thyroiditis).

(5) Thyroid Cancer

The Indian Council of Medical Research established the National Cancer Registry Program, and the NCRP has collected the data of more than 3,00,000 cancer patients between the periods 1984 and 1993. Among these patients, the NCRP noted 5614 cases of thyroid cancer, and this included 3617 females and 2007 males. The six centers involved in the studies were at Mumbai, Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Dibrugarh, Chandigarh, and Chennai. Among them, Thiruvananthapuram had the highest relative frequency of cases of thyroid cancer among all cancer cases enrolled in the hospital registry, 1.99% among males and 5.71% among females. The nationwide relative frequency of thyroid cancer among all the cancer cases was 0.1%–0.2%. The age-adjusted incidence rates of thyroid cancer per 100,000 are about 1 for males and 1.8 for females as per the Mumbai Cancer Registry, which covered a population of 9.81 million subjects. The histological types of thyroid cancer were studied in a Hospital Cancer Registry of 1185 “new cases” of thyroid cancer. The commonest cancer type was papillary, followed by follicular cancer.

The above information has been collected from an article published by Dr. Ambika Gopalkrishnan Unnikrishnan and Dr. Usha V Menon in Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2011 July suppl 2 edition.