In these unprecedented times, parents and children have become quite familiar with the sudden reality of not being able to go to school or interact with their teachers. Further, there are growing concerns that children are falling behind in their learning, and a cadre of children may never catch up. For so many children in rural and marginalised communities in Africa, inconsistent schooling has a negative effect on their future.
Education is a driver of social mobility. Though parents in Europe and North America are now experiencing children not in school, this phenomenon is a reality for so many families in Africa. The desire of every parent is for their children to be healthy, to mentally thrive, and eventually support their families as adults. Children have their own ambitious and achievable goals that they want to pursue, and it is critical that they are set up for success. One of the most cost-effective ways of helping both parents and children realise their ambitions is ending the burden of parasitic worm infections for these young men and women. Research has shown that ending these diseases can increase a child’s school attendance, which allows them to have better opportunities in the long term and significantly earn more.
In recognition of the second annual World Neglected Tropical Disease Day, we reflect on the fight against intestinal worms, which affect more than 1.5bn people globally. School age children are the most affected in Africa. Pupils that are affected by intestinal worms fall behind in their basic education. Even if children burdened by intestinal worms are able to attend school, they often feel lethargic and are unable to master key competencies.
In its efforts to create a more fair and equitable world, the END Fund (the only private philanthropic initiative aimed at ending the five most prevalent NTDs) supports mass drug administration campaigns to treat and prevent infection from parasitic worms. During these campaigns, children take a safe and effective medication, which gets rid of existing parasitic infections. Reaching these children involves a collaborative cross-sector approach that leverages pharmaceutical companies donating medications through the World Health Organisation. Public health organisations like the END Fund are able to channel these generous donations and work alongside ministries of health and education, and other local implementing partners to reach children in schools for as little as 50 cents per child yearly. This extraordinarily low cost intervention has been highlighted by the WHO, United States, United Kingdom and philanthropists, as a ‘best buy in public health’ because of the huge health, educational and economic benefits.
For more than 10 years, the END Fund has worked with the Government of Rwanda on nationwide deworming of children. At the beginning, our joint aim was to regularly treat all school children. Once this was successfully in place, we set our goals higher to eliminate these diseases, so that children would not miss school because of sickness. More recently, we are partnering with the government to not only eliminate any parasitic infection in children, but also in adults. There are many countries in Africa where we want to achieve the same result. We are currently working in more than 25 countries. In 2019 alone, we worked with local implementing partners to deliver more than 196m treatments. Although there is still a long way to go, our work in Rwanda shows that it can be done. Years ago, it was a fairly bold endeavour to scale up nationwide deworming of children, and reaching the point of complete elimination was still a distant ambition. Today, thanks to the commitments of the Rwandan government, pharmaceutical companies, global philanthropists and the private sector, that goal is within sight.
When we asked school teachers in Rwanda about their students’ experience with deworming, they enthusiastically alluded to higher school attendance, more focused attention and much more energy at school. In Western Kenya, a Harvard study of schools revealed that treating parasitic infections by mass drug administration programmes can improve school attendance by 25 per cent. The same study showed that over time, NTD treatments can also increase an adult’s earning potential by 20 per cent.
To demonstrate the economic impact of such a low cost health programme at a national scale, we recently commissioned research by the Economist Intelligence Unit to estimate the long term economic benefit to Rwanda, if the goal of eliminating sickness from worms was achieved. Their assessment indicates that the economic benefit of ending parasitic worms in Rwanda is over $400m. Rwanda is on the verge of reaching this goal and so the benefit is very tangible as we write on World NTD Day.
Deworming medication can be administered not only by community health workers and teachers, but also by mothers. In our pursuit to see an end to worm infections, we invite you to join us in ending the neglect, so that children can attend and enjoy school, and eventually become great leaders. Take action by visiting our website at www.end.org.
*Lancaster is Programmes Consultant at the END Fund