A small pill, a large campaign — with positive side effects

Beginning of the campaign in February

On a cool February morning in north Delhi, “35 third graders sat at small desks in a spartan but tidy classroom,”Amy Yee writes in The New York Times. “They wore blue school uniforms and listened as their teacher asked in Hindi if they had had intestinal worms.”

“A third of the children raised their hands, including 9-year-old Arjun Prasad,” Ms. Yee writes. He sometimes felt stomach pain and weakness — symptoms of severe infection — he said. “A few minutes later, Arjun and his classmates were given deworming pills, and took them during the class,” she writes. “They were among the 3.7 million children in Delhi who have taken the pills as part of a recent campaign in India’s capital to stamp out the widespread but neglected ailment.”

The chewable pill, mebendazole, which the Delhi schoolchildren said tasted like peppermint, costs just 3 cents. It is safe, easy to administer in schools (teachers can be trained to do it) and costs 50 cents per child to distribute twice a year. Within a few days the pill flushes worms out of the body.

The Delhi campaign followed others in India. Bihar, a western state for years practically synonymous with poverty in India, last year dewormed a staggering 17 million schoolchildren — nearly double the population of Sweden. Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, distributed deworming tablets to 2 million children in 2009.

If giving deworming pills to schoolchildren is so easy and effective, why haven’t more large-scale programs taken off? Ms. Yee asks. In fact, rolling out mass deworming programs, especially in “infamously bureaucratic and corrupt India, is a huge logistical feat and a notable act of political will,” she writes…

Deworming tablets are widely used (they are sold over the counter in India) and don’t carry the political and ethical sensitivities of vaccines. They are generic, so patents are not an issue. Students do not need parental consent to take them, thus decreasing bureaucracy…

However, the deworming campaigns are just one more important step. Momentum must be sustained; children should take deworming pills twice a year for several years if infection is high…

Bihar is readying for the second round of deworming this May, and Delhi has pledged another deworming day this summer. “Government will take this on, they won’t take it halfway,” pledged Kiran Walia, Delhi’s minister for women and child development, in an interview in Delhi in February.

The world will watch and hope. The world will watch and offer more help if needed.

RTFA for lots more detail.

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