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Disease, Violence, Malnutrition, Pollution, Illiteracy: Five Scourges that Cripple IQ in Sub-Saharan Africa

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by guest blogger Hank Pellissier

 All people are created equal, right? We’re all the same species, we’re all physically and mentally cousins. But if that’s true… why do academic tomes like Wealth and the IQ of Nations insist that the average Sub-Saharan African’s IQ is 30-40 points lower than an East Asian’s IQ?  How can that book give Hong Kong an IQ of 106 and Equatorial Guinea a mere 59?

In 2002, Wealth and the IQ of Nations posited frightfully low IQ numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa.  When the book’s authors – Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen – recalculated the data in their 2006 update, IQ and Global Inequality, they arrived at equally abysmal figures: Sierra Leone (64), The Congo (65), Zimbabwe (66), Guinea (66), Nigeria (69), The Gambia (66), Senegal (66), Mozambique (64), Gabon (64), Central African Republic (64), Equatorial Guinea (59), Liberia (67), Lesotho (67), Angola (68), Niger (67), South Africa (72).

These numbers were lambasted by other researchers, and a rival study, led by Jelte M. Wicherts of The Netherlands, claimed a much higher average IQ for the SubSaharan region: 82. But even this lags excruciatingly far behind East Asia and the Western world. Why?

An answer is emerging that has nothing to do with “race,” “racism,” or “data manipulation.” If we assume that both the maxim “all people are created equal” and the above-mentioned IQ stats are TRUE, there’s only one viable explanation, which is:

SubSaharan African intellectual strength is severely maimed after
conception, in gestation and early childhood.

melodrama1 Disease, Violence, Malnutrition, Pollution, Illiteracy: Five Scourges that Cripple IQ in Sub Saharan AfricaFully optimizing the potential of the  human brain is  extraordinarily difficult in the Sub-Saharan. Why? What post-conception horrors afflict the region’s IQ, reducing it to a level 33% below East Asia and the West?

The brain-poisoning culprit is a monstrous concoction of diseases, violences, malnutritions, pollutions and illiteracy.

Harsh news, isn’t it? Painful to comprehend and accept. Decent humans are “egalitarian” – we want to believe everyone remains equal in mental ability, no matter how disparate the environments. I appreciate this idealism, but it is anti-scientific and counter-productive to view our brains as impervious to outside harm. My article seeks to promote assistance to those who live in places where brains are under duress. I want their environments improved, so their neurological functions can thrive. My ambition in this essay is both humanitarian and techno-progressive; after explaining the causes, I’ll propose attainable solutions that can elevate Sub-Saharan IQ and alleviate suffering.

 Disease, Violence, Malnutrition, Pollution, Illiteracy: Five Scourges that Cripple IQ in Sub Saharan AfricaFirst, let’s catalog all the brain-maiming factors of the area. Nigeria will be primarily used as a source of dismal statistics, because it is the most populous nation in the region, with about 150 million citizens.

DISEASE:  Two recent studies – a 2010 report from the University of New Mexico and 2011 research from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada – have strongly correlated low national IQs with high rates of infectious disease. Their findings mirror what Jared Diamond claimed in his 1997 best-seller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – i.e, endemic diseases thwart human advancement.

nigeria2 Disease, Violence, Malnutrition, Pollution, Illiteracy: Five Scourges that Cripple IQ in Sub Saharan Africa

In my email correspondence with the biologists at the University of New Mexico, I was informed by the above study’s lead author Christopher Eppig that, “Based on our own research… a social policy aimed at elevating IQ would want to focus on reducing the infection rates and durations of the infections that are most costly to the brain, which we predict include malaria, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, and intestinal worms.”

Below I have outlined the damage caused by each of these four maladies in Sub-Saharan nations.

Malaria: Every year there are 225 million cases of malaria worldwide, with 90% occurring in the Sub-Saharan region, where 3,000 die everyday of the disease. Nigeria alone accounts for 25% of the planet’s malaria cases, with 30 million of it’s citizens annually contracting the scourge, leaving 300,000 dead.  The “brain insult” of malaria is horrendous. One international study defines cerebral malaria “as the presence of coma” leaving victims with neurophysiological impairment to brain regions associated with planning, decision-making, self-awareness, and social sensitivity. Young Sub-Saharans are alarmingly vulnerable to drastic IQ reduction due to the malarial threat because, as University of New Mexico researchers state, “From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks.”  Its crucial to realize here that developing nations, like the entire Sub-Saharan, have a far higher rate of mental retardation. A 2008 Rush University Medical College (Chicago) report observed that “Surveys in high-income countries show 3 to 5 per 1,000 with severe intellectual disability… Estimates from developing countries, however, have found prevalence rates from 5 to as much as 22 per 1,000.” Malaria is listed by the researchers as one of the “major contributing causes” in Third World mental retardation.  remedy: Recently in Lagos, two mosquito nets were distributed to each family – a total of 4.1 million nets – in a fresh attempt to curb the sickening menace.

Diarrhea: The diarrhea rate in Nigeria is 18.8%, with 150,000 children dying annually of the disease. Diarrhea weakens the immune system and can quickly lead the sufferer to malnutrition, pneumonia, and a host of additional plagues. University of New Mexico researchers note that, “if exposed to diarrhoeal diseases during their first five years, individuals may experience lifelong detrimental effects to their brain development, and thus intelligence. Parasites may [also] negatively affect cognitive function in other ways, such as infecting the brain directly…” remedy: Nigeria launched a Handwashing Campaign in 2008, plus a hygiene program to construct one million latrines. Studies indicate that handwashing can reduce diarrhea by 30-47%.

Tuberculosis:  Nigeria has the 4th highest TB rate in the world, with more than 400,000 cases per year. Tuberculosis – commonly associated with the lungs – has the potential to attack the brain, causing Tuberculosis Meningitis (TBM). Although this occurs in only 1% of TB cases in developed nations, reports indicate that TB leads to TBM in Nigeria between 7.8-14% of the time. The result? At least 20% of survivors are left with severe brain damage. Tuberculosis also creates a severe toll on the immune system, retarding the cognitive development of young children. remedy: TB “carriers” in Nigeria need to be identified early and treated regularly with antibiotics in services that extend throughout the nation, especially rural areas that have relied on herbal concoctions with a low rate of success.

Intestinal Worms (helminth infections): Nigerian schoolchildren are widely at risk of three intestinal parasites: roundworm, whipworm, and hookworm. One study revealed a 54.9% infection rate in urban public schools, 63.5% infection in rural public schools, and 28.4% in private schools. Intestinal worms have been associated with reduced IQ in many studies; one estimate is that “the average IQ loss for children left untreated is 3.75 points per worm infection.”  remedy:  Improved sanitation via clean water, soap, improved latrines, and elimination of garbage around schools. Plus, de-worming at a cost of only 50 cents per child.

VIOLENCE:  Being subjected to violence, or witnessing violent activity, puts a traumatic burden on children that leads to cognitive decline.  How steep is the subtraction? A 2002 study  from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan concludes that “a child experiencing both violence exposure and trauma-related distress… would be expected to have a 7.5-point decrement in IQ and a 9.8 decrement in reading achievement.”  The SubSaharan region is catastrophically violent in numerous categories; I have listed only four below.

Civil Strife: Myriad bloodbaths have soaked the Sub-Saharan in the last thirty years, including recent and current conflicts in The Congo, Ivory Coast, and religious terrorism in Nigeria, plus past nightmares in Rwanda, Burundi, Biafra, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Liberia, Uganda, Central African Republic, and others. Is it accurate to define the entire region as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome?  Perhaps.  A recent survey of Liberians revealed that 71% of those questioned had witnessed a beating, 47% witnessed a killing, and 33% witnessed the killing of a family member. How does a pervasive atmosphere of violence affect children’s cognition? A Stanford Hospital study suggests that, “children’s risk for learning and behavior problems… rises in correlation to their level of trauma exposure….children experiencing four types of trauma were 30 times more likely to have behavior and learning problems than those not exposed to trauma.” remedy:  Political stability is needed, with dedicated administrators. Hopefully, they’re encouraged by the Mo Imbrahim Foundation that awards an annual $5 million prize to African leaders who demonstrate good governance.

 Domestic Violence:  A 2011 Harvard Medical School report notes that “Witnessing domestic violence is a traumatic childhood experience associated with reduced IQ scores.” Unfortunately, wife-beating is all-too-common in SubSaharan Africa. A recent Nigerian news report claims that, “More than 50 percent [of wives] say they have experienced domestic violence at the hands of their husbands.” Counter-intuitively, “more educated women (65%) are in this terrible situation as compared to their low income counterparts (55%).” Are the children watching? Another study says that 46% of Nigerian women reported being abused in the presence of their children. remedy:  A cultural sea-change that elevates women’s rights and prosecutes domestic abusers; a staggering 97.2% of Nigerian women say they are unwilling to report the abuse to Nigerian police.

Child Sexual Abuse:  Multiple studies assert that children subjected to sexual abuse suffer parallel damage to their brain development. For example, a Yale University study has linked childhood sexual abuse to “long-term deficits in verbal short-term memory” – a result that resembles the damage observed in “patients with combat-related PTSD.” Is child sexual abuse common in the Sub-Saharan?  The Lancet reports that 33% of girls and women in Swaziland claimed they were victimized by sexual violence before reaching the age of 18. In Nigeria, rape is reportedly on the increase, particularly child rape. A 2008 news article from Kano, the commercial hub of northern Nigeria, claimed that, “The suspects are usually males between the ages of 45 and 70 while their victims are mostly girls of between three and 11 years.” The article notes that many rapes are never reported because “parents want to save the honor of their daughters and protect their families from embarrassment.” remedy:  Cultural change is needed, promoting the rights of children and prosecuting those who abuse them.

Female Genital Mutilation: Although FGM is a “traditional ritual” it needs to also be regarded as a violent, traumatic episode that can likely damage the cognitive development of the victims, generally girls aged 4-12. The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, asserting that FGM has posed a “mental health risk” to 92 million African women. In the Sub-Saharan region, the following rates of FGM prevalence exist in the 15-49 age category, representing tens of millions of women and girls: Ivory Coast (36.4%), Gambia (78.3%), Guinea (95.6%), Liberia (58.2%), Nigeria (29.6%), Sierra Leone (94.0%), Guinea-Bissau (44.5%), and Senegal (28.2%).  I have written about FGM in greater detail at the ieet.org website.  remedy: Outlawing FGM.

MALNUTRITION: Prior to the recent focus on infectious disease hampering IQ levels, the prevalent opinion in scholastic circles was that malnutrition was the brain’s primarily oppressor. On the website nextbigfuture, author Brian Wang asserts that “if everyone had optimal levels of of micronutrients the IQ of over half the world would be increased by up to 20 IQ points.” The Sub-Saharan would be a primary beneficiary of improved nutrition, especially infants, children, and pregnant women. Below I’ve listed only two dietary ingredients needed for optimal brain development; additional nutrients that also need to be considered are zinc, calcium, folic acid, Vitamin A, and magnesium. I’ve also advocated breast-feeding, because the nutrition it provides has been frequently linked to higher IQ scores.

Iodine Deficiency: If a pregnant mother’s diet is low in element #53, her child’s IQ can be severely hampered. Cretinism is the worst result of iodine deficiency, with its shocking retardation of physical and mental development. A recent report indicates that every year 900,000 Nigerian children will suffer an IQ loss because their mothers didn’t ingest enough iodine during their pregnancy. How large of an IQ loss? The website micronutrient.org suggests “the loss of intellectual capacity by as much as 10 to 15 percentage points.” remedy: Add iodine to all salt distributed in the Sub-Saharan.

Iron Deficiency (anemia): An alarming 75.6% of Nigerian children are anemic, claims micronutrient.org.  This lack punishes developing brains. “Various tests of cognitive skills associate lack of iron during infancy and early childhood with significant levels of disadvantage, affecting IQ scores by as much as 5 to 7 points,” notes nextbigfuture.com. remedy: Food fortification, especially wheat flour and cereal.

Lack of Breastfeeding:  Recent research by Oxford University and Essex University asserts that infants breastfed for just four weeks are granted a 3 point IQ boost. Many specialists advice breastfeeding for at least six months because fatty acids in the mother’s milk aids infant brain development. Unfortunately, breastfeeding rates in the Sub-Saharan are among the world’s lowest.  UNICEF calculates that only 31% of the region’s mothers breastfeed, a low figure compared to East and South Asia’s 43-44%. Breastfeeding is also more hygienic; bottle-feeding can infect newborns with diseases like diarrhea, especially in areas with contaminated water. remedy: Breastfeeding prevalence in the Sub-Saharan has made enormous strides in recent years, leaping up from a mere 24% in 1996. Continued education is needed.

 POLLUTION: Numerous elements and molecular compounds are severely debilitating to human brain development. I’ve listed two dangers below; additional chemicals that cause harm in the Sub-Saharan are cadmium, manganese, petroleum hydrocarbons, mercury, and others. Water pollution and soil contamination are merit attention.

 Lead Poisoning: The brain-toxic 82nd element is pervasive throughout the Sub-Sahara. Leaded gasoline wasn’t phased out until 2005 with settling fumes caking the soil, and subsequently, the agricultural produce. Illegal mining operations in northern Nigeria recently used lead to refine gold ore, horrendously contaminating both the ground and the water. The NGO “Doctors Without Borders” discovered in 2010 that 90% of the children under 5 in the state of Zamfara, Nigeria (population 3.6 million) had lead poisoning.  In Kabwe, Zambia, lead concentrates in children are also 5-10 times the permissible USA EPA level. Researchers also recently discovered that “96% of the consumer paints available in Nigeria contained higher than the recommended levels of lead.” The effect of lead on IQ varies in research reports, but a 2001 study, from School of Public Health University at Albany Rensselaer (New York) estimated that lead exposure in children caused a “permanent loss of IQ of approximately 5 to 7 IQ points.”  remedy: The World Bank and other organizations have allocated funds for massive clean-up operations.

Air Pollution (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons):

lagos2 Disease, Violence, Malnutrition, Pollution, Illiteracy: Five Scourges that Cripple IQ in Sub Saharan Africa

Lagos – with its 12 million residents – has severe air pollution, largely caused byauto fumes and burning garbage. The Nigerian city does not have the worst air in the Sub-Saharan, however, that unfortunate honor goes to Gaberone, Botswana, which was voted 7th Worst in the World in a recent Time magazine survey. Research in Krakow, Poland and New York City claims that air pollution exposure before birth lowers IQ by 4 points, because smog harms the developing brain. remedy: Sub-Saharan cities need energy-efficient public rail systems, and vehicles and industry need stricter emissions controls.

 ILLITERACY: In the Sub-Saharan, a mind-boggling 58% of the population is illiterate. Benin is the worst with 82.4% illiteracy; only 11.9% of its women can read and write. In Nigeria, nine million kids don’t go to school, instead they just “roam the streets.”  Illiterate children don’t take the standard “Alpha” IQ test, instead, they tackle the non-verbal Revised Beta Examination.  Barely literate children are at an extreme disadvantage with the language-based Alpha. remedy: Strides are being made. Emphasis needs to be placed on getting more girls to attend school (i.e., changing cultural attitudes) and in encouraging students to attend secondary schools.

The tragic liabilities above have created a climate so vicious to brain development, it’s amazing the tormented IQs aren’t even farther behind the 3-digit East Asians and Westerns.  My desire is that charitable benefactors will invest in correcting the gap.  Many NGOs have studied IQ correlation and causation and they’ve correctly surmised that improving IQ will elevate per capita income and quality of life.

Techno-progressive solutions are critical now – a prime current hope is that internet access and low-cost computers in the Sub-Saharan will accelerate the residents into an egalitarian future. This is rapidly happening: Nigeria’s internet connectivity tripled from 2000-2008, leaping from 8 to 24 million, according to Accender Africa. With correct policies and intentions, Sub-Saharans can, in the future, be equal to all, by every material and mental measure.


National IQ estimates by Lynn and Vanhanen
Wicherts IQ estimate
University of New Mexico study on infectious disease
Carleton University research on infectious disease
definition of cerebral malaria
Rush University Medical College report on the varying rate of retardation malaria nets distributed in Lagos
diarrhea rate in NIgeria
Tuberculosis Meningitis rate in NIgeria
intestinal worm infection rate in NIgerian schools
IQ loss due to intestinal worms
average IQ loss due to trauma
survey of Liberians experiencing violence
Stanford study of the consequences of trauma
Mo Imbrahim Foundation Prize
Harvard study on IQ loss due to domestic violence
Nigerian wife-beating
news article with statistic claiming educated Nigerian women are beaten more often
Yale study on the cognitive damage caused by child sexual abuse

Swaziland statistic on child sexual abuse
Sexual abuse in Kano, Nigeria
WHO and female genital mutilation

IEET.org article on FGM
Nigerian iodine deficiency
Breastfeeding research
UNICEF statistics on breastfeeding rates in the Sub-Saharan
Lead phased out of Africa in 2005
Lead pollution in Zamfara, NIgeria
Lead pollution in Kabwe, Zambia
Lead in Nigerian paint
Lead causes damage to IQ
Gaberone, Botswana air pollution
air pollution studies in Krakow, Poland and New York City
Benin illiteracy
Nigerian street kids
Accender Africa

Hank Pellissier is an Affiliate Scholar, and regular contributor, to IEET.org – the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technology

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