Last week in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed (subscription required) that made a passionate plea for international help to prevent diseases spread by worms. Rarely discussed in the media, worms pose an enormous threat to human health. As Kristof describes:
The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases estimates that more easily preventable and treatable ailments, including worms, elephantiasis and trachoma, kill 500,000 people annually. Indeed, ordinary worms kill 130,000 people a year through anemia and intestinal obstruction.
The real tragedy in these figures is that worm prevention is relatively inexpensive. According to Kristof, to deworm a child costs about 50 cents each year.
One disease not highlighted in Kristof's column was soil transmitted helminthiasis (STH) -- an infection of intestinal worms usually found in tropical and subtropical areas associated with a lack of sanitation and clean water. In children it can have a crippling effect because it causes malnutrition, stunts growth and can increase their susceptibility to other serious infections. About 400 million children are estimated to suffer from STH, and fewer than 20 percent of at-risk school-age children were reached with deworming treatment of 2005.
How do I know all this? Well, earlier this year, The Task Force on Child Survival and Development and Johnson & Johnson formed a partnership to donate 50 million doses of medendazole during 2007 to children infected with, or at risk of developing, intestinal worms.
Hopefully it will make a difference. Cameroon, one of the countries to receive donations through this program, increased by tenfold the number of children it reaches through its recently launched deworming program. Drug intervention will be for naught unless other organizations take steps to provide clean water, improve sanitation and hygiene and provide health education that will help prevent children from becoming re-infected. But providing much needed medicines is a start.