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Improving children’s futures by tackling parasitic worms

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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. Furthermore, 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 marginalized
communities in Africa, inconsistent schooling has a negative effect on
their future.

Education is a driver of social mobility. Even 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 realize 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.

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In recognition of the second annual World NTD Day we reflect back on the
fight against intestinal worms, which affect more than 1.5 billion
people globally. School aged children are the most predominantly
affected in Africa. Students 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 our 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 on pharmaceutical companies
donating medications through the World Health Organization. Public
health organizations like the END Fund are able to channel these
generous donations and work alongside ministries of health, ministries
of education, and other local implementing partners to reach children in
schools for as little as $0.50 cents per child per year. This
extraordinarily low cost intervention has been highlighted by the World
Health Organization, US Government, UK Government as well as
philanthropists, as being a ‘best buy in public health’ because of the
huge health, educational, and economic benefits.

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For more than ten 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 infections 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
196 million 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 records, more focused attention, and much more energy at
school. In Western Kenya, a Harvard research study of schools revealed
that treating parasite infections by mass drug administration programs
can improve school attendance by 25%. The same study showed that over
time, NTD treatments can also increase an adult’s earning potential by
20%.

To demonstrate the economic impact of such a low cost health program 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 $400 million USD . 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.

The writer is Warren Lancaster, Programs Consultant, the END Fund_

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