SEATTLE, Washington — In the early 20th century, hookworm disease ravaged the United States. In response, this led to the first deworming initiatives and the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO). Eventually, these efforts would succeed in purging the disease from the country, and today it is largely forgotten in the U.S. Yet helminthiases, or infection by parasitic worms, remains a serious global health issue. Officials estimate that the disease affects more than 1.5 billion worldwide, including almost 900 million children.
This number is disproportionately made up of the world’s poor, particularly those living in tropical countries with poor sanitation. Indeed, despite periodic distributions of anthelmintics (worm-killing) drugs on the part of WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the parasite is still plaguing populations. This has prompted a global charitable response that seeks to eradicate parasitic worms in the developing world.
Harms of Helminthiases
Parasitic worms have an extremely negative impact on their hosts. This is particularly true in the case of children, for whom it causes malnourishment, cognitive impairment, anemia, stunted growth, delays in intellectual development and greatly increased morbidity.
Adults suffer from similar symptoms, the most common of which are diarrhea, stomach pains, weakness and blood loss resulting in anemia. Helminthiases thus largely diminishes productivity in already poor communities and greatly impairs the futures of these communities by permanently affecting the development of their children.
Low Cost, Impactful Approaches
Health officials widely recognize the administration of anthelminthic drugs as a simple, cheap and safe method for eradicating parasitic worms. Though individuals at risk must take the drugs periodically, with proper health infrastructure, they no longer have to worry about infection.
The fact that the drugs present no harm to the uninfected also makes them a valuable tool for activists. Because screening for helminthiases can cost up to 10 times that of the treatment, many are instead electing for mass treatment as a more cost-effective way of combating the disease.
For example, the nonprofit organization Evidence Action estimates that by utilizing the school-based distribution system under their Deworm the World initiative, it can cure children of parasitic worms at a cost of less than $0.50 per year. Likewise, fellow nonprofits the SCI Foundation, Sightsavers and the END Fund are also seeing impressive benefits from mass testing.
The Future of Deworming Initiatives
Deworming initiatives have a major impact on children in affected communities, allowing them to successfully complete their education, get the nutrition they need for physical and mental health and vastly improve their futures.
In fact, a Harvard study found that deworming initiatives increased long-term adult income by 17 percent in the U.S. South in the early 20th century. A similar effort could increase income by 24 percent in Africa. These initiatives are thus an extremely effective method for improving the well-being of the world’s poor.
As for the future, WHO plans to eradicate helminthiases in Africa by the end of 2020. In 2016, it announced that member states had successfully treated 63 percent of all children with helminthiases. Evidence Action and the SCI Foundation are certainly doing their part in this regard. The former has already helped deworm “more than 270 million children in India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan” while the latter has helped deliver more than 200 million treatments for parasitic worms.
Though much work remains, deworming initiatives have made serious headway into the elimination of parasitic worms. This can only mean good things for the world’s poorest.
– Ronin Berzins