Children need to be physically and emotionally healthy to be able learn. Yet school-age children in developing countries can be affected by many infectious and non-communicable diseases. Frequent illnesses are a cause of school absenteeism, and they reduce a child’s ability to concentrate and participate in the classroom, weakening their overall level of learning.
Common sense dictates that the health and educational development of children are inextricably linked. Children need to be physically and emotionally healthy to learn.
Yet, in developing countries, school-age children can be affected by many infectious and non-contagious diseases. Frequent illnesses are a cause of school absenteeism, and they reduce a child’s ability to concentrate and participate in the classroom, thus weakening his or her overall level of learning.
Health and education are closely linked
For too long, the Ministries of Health and Education have worked in parallel and in isolation. There are few incentives for cooperation, and even fewer examples of successful collaboration. Having worked in both sectors – first in GAVI and now in the Global Partnership for Education – it is clear to me that, despite separate specific objectives, the two sectors are interconnected. Research clearly shows that educated parents, especially mothers, are better informed and make better choices about their children’s health.
Schools are powerful social institutions that can act to improve the health and well-being of every child and, through school health programmes, promote learning and life opportunities for each generation. Such programmes can be effective in reaching disadvantaged communities that would otherwise not have access to the basic health screening services that schools can provide.
School health programmes are a good investment
Investments in school health programs are also a good financial investment. Early detection of hearing or vision problems and annual deworming campaigns can be a cost-effective way to detect and treat children’s health problems at an early stage, thereby reducing or even eliminating the risks and costs associated with more complex health problems and subsequent illness. Early planning and action by representatives of ministries of health and education is a good investment of usually modest resources.
For parents, school health programmes provide basic medical visits and care that they may not be able to afford or otherwise access.
Deworming treatment is just one example.
The deworming treatment is a good example of this cross-sectoral collaboration. More than 600 million children worldwide are at risk of parasitic infection, and nearly 400 million of them receive no treatment at all. Each year, 43 countries in Africa and eight countries in South-East Asia make up the vast majority of these children, with the highest concentration of school-age children in need of preventive chemotherapy (WHO).
Parasitic infections can cause multiple problems in children. They cause reduced nutrient uptake, which can lead to malnutrition and anaemia, and can affect both physical and cognitive development. Taken together, these manifestations can pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of the child.
The good news is that there is a safe, simple and proven solution to treating parasitic infections: school-based drug delivery programmes, which cost less than 50 cents per dose per child. An evaluation of Kenya’s School Deworming Programme showed that the initiative reduced serious parasitic infections by half and contributed to a 25 per cent reduction in school absenteeism. Mass school deworming treatments are proving to be an excellent investment in education and health (Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT).
In recent years, major pharmaceutical companies, including Glaxo Smith Klein and Johnson and Johnson, have generously pledged to support global deworming efforts, donating hundreds of millions of doses of deworming medication for school-aged children.
This is what India has just done, which announced its first national deworming campaign on February 9, 2015. Other countries are expected to follow in the footsteps of India and Kenya.