Unquestionably, one of the most effective weapons fighting global poverty today is education, and in Rwanda, a small country in central eastern Africa, it’s essential. Absence is commonplace however, with children suffering from abdominal pain, diarrhea and nausea. Attendance in school is difficult for children with soil-transmitted helminth infections.
In collaboration with Ministries of Health, a campaign to combat the disease was launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has shown success in getting students back in school.
According to WHO, soil-transmitted helminth infections are among the most common infections worldwide and affect the poorest and most deprived communities. They are transmitted by eggs present in human feces, which contaminate soil in areas where sanitation is poor. The disease is easily contracted by walking barefoot on contaminated soil or eating contaminated food.
The main species that infect people are the roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and the hookworms (Necator americanus and Ancylostoma duodenale).
Soil-transmitted helminth causes a spectrum of health problems, from the indiscernible to the severe, which can includ abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood and protein loss, rectal prolapse and physical and mental retardation. The severity of infection is directly related to the worm burden.
The disease, one of the most common parasitic ailments in the world, affects approximately 2 billion people, nearly two thirds of the world’s population, and it is estimated that 4 billion others are at risk.
In Rwanda, illnesses can be extraordinarily bad. According to WHO, ninety-five percent of school aged children living in the Musanze District were suffering in 2007, one of the highest rates in the country.
There, soil-transmitted helminth is contracted mainly from dirty water, fetched from nearby Lake Ruhondo and those who use the stagnant water from the former banks of the Mukungwa River. Open defecation is still practiced in the area and sanitation is almost non-existent.
In 2007, whole families were getting sick. Parents stayed home caring for sick children, which prevented them from being able to work, and children were too sick to go to school or earn a menial income raising livestock or growing vegetables.
Worldwide, the WHO has been working tirelessly to control the spread of soil-transmitted helminth by facilitating wider access to preventive medicine such as albendazole and mebendazole. According to Dr. Antonio Montresor, Medical Officer for WHO in the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, the deworming campaign reached more than 395 million children in 2014, making it one of the largest global public health interventions.
In the Musanze District of Rwanda, the WHO provides the necessary medications to local schools, which are then disseminated to the population. Since the program started, the rate of children with intestinal worms has been reduced by nearly 20 percent.
Education is essential in alleviating global poverty. Every day a child is absent from class, the likelihood they can break the endless cycle disappears a little more. The WHO is striving to keep students in school and families healthy, making a chance to prosper a reality.
– Jason Zimmerman