We introduced an exciting new component to our young child health initiative that we hope will help improve the health status of children in Fakir Bagan. During our Growth Monitoring and Promotion (GMP) camp this week, Calcutta Kids carried out routine deworming of preschool age children. We have been discussing this idea for several months now after our data analysis showed a high prevalence of worm infestation in a group of malnourished children enrolled in our nutrition pilot program (YChiNG). At the time, we dewormed the children in the YChiNG program, but realized that there were many more children in our catchment area who could benefit from deworming.
We were motivated in part by a Government of India mass deworming campaign in New Delhi earlier this year, which included deworming not only school-age children in government schools, but also pre-school age children in ICDS/Anganwadi (government health) centers. During last month’s GMP in Fakir Bagan, we conducted a survey with mothers of children 1-3 years old, asking them to report if their child had an incidence of intestinal worms in the past 6 months. A resounding 43% of mothers answered yes, which reflected a clear need for an intervention.
Intestinal worms, which are pervasive in India, can have devastating effects on a child’s physical and mental growth. In low-income urban areas like Fakir Bagan, where sanitation and hygiene are poor and many children walk around without shoes for protection, the most common type of intestinal worms are soil transmitted helminthes. Once in the body, these parasitic worms feed on host tissues, including blood, leading to a loss of iron and protein. They also hinder the absorption of nutrients. The result is diarrhea, anemia, and malnutrition, all which have a detrimental impact on child health, growth, and development. To counter the negative effects of worms, the WHO recommends periodic drug treatment (deworming) of all children living in endemic areas. (1) Studies have shown that routine deworming of children can have significant positive outcomes on nutrition, growth, and cognitive performance.
School-age children are thought to have a high burden of worm infestation. Fortunately, they are easy to reach for deworming because schools serve as pre-established distribution networks. The evidence shows that routine deworming makes a difference. One landmark study showed that deworming can reduce school absenteeism by 25%. Furthermore, children who are regularly dewormed earn over 20% more as adults and work 12% more hours, while those infected are 13% less likely to be literate. (2) Global campaigns now target pre-school age children, who are tougher to reach but also a vulnerable group in terms of exposure to worms. Studies conducted in Indian slums show that there is substantial weight gain in young children (pre-school age) who are dewormed regularly. (3)
Apart from the mass campaign in Delhi this year, which followed mass campaigns in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh a few years back, deworming campaigns have not been widely organized in India. Given that deworming is extremely cost-effective at only a few cents per pill, and provides both short-term and long-term physical and cognitive benefits to a child, India could see great benefits by ramping up state deworming campaigns, which can be effectively carried out through government schools and ICDS/Anganwadi health centers. The WHO includes intestinal worms among “the 17 neglected tropical diseases” which WHO Director General Margaret Chan described as “diseases that are largely silent, as the people affected or at risk have no political voice.”. The WHO launched its “neglected tropical diseases” campaign to raise awareness among policy makers and donors, in hopes of stimulating more action, like deworming campaigns. For Calcutta Kids, this new deworming initiative marks a proactive step to address the “neglected disease” that is most prevalent in our community.
The first round of deworming this week marked the beginning of our commitment to ensure routine deworming every 6 months to each preschool aged child in Fakir Bagan. We reached each of the 311 children between 1-3 years old, but missed some children who had traveled to the village with their families, but they should be covered in future rounds. Between rounds, we will immediately treat any children who present with worms. Parents at the camp were positive about the deworming intervention. The results were telling. In the words of one father, “My child was feeling sick and her stomach was swollen from worms. I am happy that she is now getting medicine to make her better.” – Danya Sarkar
3. Effects of Deworming on Malnourished Preschool Children in India: An Open-Labelled, Cluster-Randomized Trial. Shally Awasthi, Richard Peto, Vinod K. Pande, Robert H. Fletcher, Simon Read, Donald A. P. Bundy. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, April 2008, Volume 2, Issue 4