Can one small pill given once or twice a year to school and pre school children end the risk of parasitic worm infection for nearly 241 million children?

Medical research says it can. And that’s the basis for a massive ongoing national campaign by the Central and State governments in India to deworm children between the ages of 1-19.

While the deworming tablet has been used in the past by paediatricians and public health units, it has never been executed in a planned, systematic manner covering a large number.

Studies in Kenya, Uganda and India revealed that deworming as a school-based activity resulted in increased school attendance, weight gain among children and improved their cognitive development. The research was followed up years later and it substantiated positive results in the long-term.

Deworming initiative

This led to health organisation, Evidence Action, rolling out a ‘Deworm the World Initiative’ (DWI) across the globe. In 2010-2011, the State governments of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi took up the initiative.

“In Andhra Pradesh, it was initially a community-based model as we were still determining how severe the problem was. In Bihar we worked out a school-based mass model. The model travelled to Delhi. Rajasthan then approached us for deworming. While schools were roped in for the older kids, for the 1-5 age group, we tapped the aganwadis ,” explains Priya Jha, Director - India, Evidence Action, DWI.

Soon the organisation started talking to the Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh governments. “As health is a State subject, we felt the need for national level guidance, and when we shared the evidence with the Central government, it was willing to go national with the programme,” she adds.

The national campaign which kicked-off on February 10, covers 11 States including Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Tripura in the first phase. Delhi, the twelfth State, entered the campaign late due to State elections.

Designed around education institutions and care givers, trained teachers and anganwadi workers have been roped in to provide generic albendazole tablets to every enrolled child, and this is recorded. At the aganwadi , ASHA workers (government-accredited social health activists) have the job of advocating to parents and mobilising the 1-5 year olds for the dose.

Soil-transmitted helminths (STH) are among the most common global infections causing anaemia, under-nutrition and stunting in children, thereby impairing their mental and physical growth. The parasitic worms that infect humans include round worm, whip worm and hookworms.

The World Health Organisation says India is endemic for STHs, with 68 per cent of children below 14 years at risk. The infection is mostly transmitted by eggs passed in the faeces of infected people.

The government has institutionalised the national programme by declaring February 10{+t}{+h} as National Deworming Day. Though Phase Two plans are unclear, intentions are to cover the country this year.