17m children vulnerable to worm infection: survey

Updated January 06, 2020

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Soil-transmitted helminth infections are caused by parasitic worms like roundworm, hookworm and whipworm. — Ibitisam Zahid Khanzada/File
Soil-transmitted helminth infections are caused by parasitic worms like roundworm, hookworm and whipworm. — Ibitisam Zahid Khanzada/File

KARACHI: Health authorities have called for school-based deworming across the country as, according to an official document, around 17 million children aged between five and 15 years are at a risk of catching soil-transmitted helminth infections (STH) in 40 districts across the country. These infections are caused by intestinal worms.

The figure of 17 million children was arrived at by the Ministry of National Health Services after conducting the first nationwide STH survey in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO). The survey revealed that of the 17 million children, 4.6 million are in need of annual treatment in Karachi alone.

Soil-transmitted helminth infections are caused by parasitic worms (“helminth” means parasitic worm) like roundworm, hookworm and whipworm. Adult worms live in intestines where they produce thousands of eggs every day.

In areas that lack adequate sanitation, these eggs contaminate the soil. STH infections can cause problems like abdominal pain, diarrhoea, blood and protein loss, rectal prolapse, and physical and cognitive growth retardation.

4.6m in need of annual treatment in Karachi alone

“The Directorate of Inspection and Registration of Private Institutions of the Sindh Education Department has initiated a deworming programme in Karachi,” the document stated. “The directorate has asked private schools to provide details of teaching staff and number of students before Jan 10 so that a comprehensive campaign is launched in the city by the end of the month,” it added.

Apart from school-based programmes, health experts have suggested launch of an awareness campaign for parents. “The deworming programme is a good initiative, but for a long-term sustainable solution we need to make parents aware about prevention and remedies,” said Dr Shahid Ahmed, a Karachi-based gastroenterologist.

He also pointed out that STH infections mainly cause anaemia and it should be tackled on a long-term basis. “The Aga Khan University identified iron-deficiency anaemia among women of reproductive age after research a couple of years ago, saying it was an important public health problem. It also said that in Pakistan, the prevalence of anaemia among married women aged between 15 and 44 is reported to be 26 per cent in urban areas and 47 per cent in rural areas.

“The prevalence of anaemia among pregnant women living in urban areas is similar, ranging between 29 per cent and 50 per cent. Unfortunately, we did not make any long-term plan to meet this challenge,” Dr Shahid said.

The local pharmaceutical industry is struggling to come up with a cost-effective and permanent solution as treatment of common blood conditions among women and children, but few have managed to make any difference.

“There is a lot to be done in this emerging area of challenge,” said Haroon Qasim of PharmEvo — a pharmaceutical firm which recently received an international award in Frankfurt, Germany, for coming up with the best intervention to overcome iron-deficiency anaemia among women and children.

“We can achieve our goal primarily through research and public awareness. The government needs to create effective and long-term solutions for such conditions,” he added.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2020