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The IQ cost of Kenya’s unfortified foods

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Nutrition measurement of a child is taken using a Mid-upper Arm Circumference. FILE PHOTO | NMG

jenny

Summary

  • Kenya’s average IQ is 75 percent: sick feeling in the stomach.
  • Kenya’s nutrition is on the way up, because, nearly 10 years ago, our nation did start fortifying its maize flours.
  • The solution to micronutrient deficiencies isn’t just food fortification.

A shocking figure arrived with me last week, in some research underway on the cost in Ethiopia of delaying food fortification, which adds vitamins to common staple foods.

Ethiopia remains one of the last countries with serious nutrition gaps not to fortify its staples. So the point was to look at the cost of permanent brain and physical damage, as well as temporary costs, such as loss of immunity to infections and depleted energy.

Yet when it came through that Ethiopia has one of the lowest average IQs in the world, at 68.42 percent, where the global average is 100 percent, even my jaw dropped, despite all the data in front of me on the country’s huge vitamin deficiencies.

For there, right there, is the cost of all that impaired brain development caused by a diet for children without iron and vitamins A and B. Yet, which mother or carer honestly means to stunt their child’s brain and set them onto a lifetime of savagely impaired intelligence? The problem is that parents literally do not know how vital this is. And actually, I didn’t either.

Yet, achieving a child’s maximum potential intelligence requires just a few nutrient-rich foods, tomatoes, some fish, and regular deworming, which, before we think that’s another boring set-aside to do nothing about, get this: having sat bolt upright on seeing Ethiopia’s IQ, I looked up Kenya’s.

Kenya’s average IQ is 75 percent: sick feeling in the stomach.

Let me contextualise just how serious that is: globally, the IQ level that is the boundary for intellectual disability or mental retardation is 75, and a mean average sits at exactly the point where half the population is below that level.

Moreover, if it is not bad enough that half the Kenya population is technically retarded, typically 68 percent of the population sits within the range of 15 percent on either side of average IQ, so between 60 and 90 percent.

On that basis, only 16 percent, or fewer than one in six Kenyans, have an IQ above 90.

Now that’s massive, and it almost makes me feel bitter about past battles. I won’t say which managing editor, because I have worked across the media, but there is just one I tried so hard to get coverage on the massive cost to Kenya of the Vitamin A deficiencies that doctors say are the underlying cause of nearly all the deaths in Kenya of children from minor infections.

He wouldn’t even give a column inch to the matter, yet it’s that deficiency that turns minor stomach upsets into diarrhoea that kills, or colds into pneumonia because it literally disables the immune system.

Now, as it happens, Kenya’s nutrition is on the way up, because, nearly 10 years ago, our nation did start fortifying its maize flours — where nutritionally empty mealie maize porridge was the cause for many Kenyan children’s micronutrient deficiencies.

Thus, the children who, instead, are now getting fortified foods will be moving into their teens now, on their way through to raise the average adult IQ, and with fewer dying from diarrhoea too.

But the solution to micronutrient deficiencies isn’t just food fortification. Economist Michael Kremer last year won a Nobel Prize for his study of deworming in Kenya, which followed children for 20 years after they were given a Sh50 deworming pill, showing it boosted their income in years ahead. For when worms are inside us, it’s the worms that get the nutrients and not us.

Yet do we announce it from every pulpit, in every school, in the curriculum, in every clinic, on every radio station. No.

We have a nutrition problem, caused by what we eat, and also what worms eat, that is so serious, it’s plundering our national intelligence and we don’t even think that’s worth a Minister of Nutrition, or a department, or a weekly news page, bulletin, or daily minutes in our news?

And yet, actually, what could possibly be graver than letting our children suffer stunted intelligence: for with higher intelligence we do better at everything. So, actually, is there something more important to our national security, wellbeing and future?