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Sunday, 5 May, 2002, 23:21 GMT 00:21 UK
Child worm crackdown considered
African children
A policy change could benefit millions in Africa
Global health chiefs look set to radically change the way they tackle malnutrition among infants in the developing world.

Officials at the World Health Organisation are considering treating children under the age of two years for ringworms and other parasites, for the very first time.

Until now, health chiefs had believed this treatment was only effective for older children.

We are already preparing for a change of policy

Dr Lorenzo Savioli, WHO
But research carried out in Zanzibar in east Africa has suggested the treatment could have substantial health benefits for infants as well.

Early results from that study suggested that treating young children for worms helped to reduce levels of malnutrition and of moderate to severe anaemia.

Larger study

The WHO is now planning to replicate the study with a larger number of children to see if the results are repeated. But this early finding could be significant.

Between 25% and 50% of deaths among children aged between one and four years is caused by malnutrition.

The problem is particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa and is exacerbated by anaemia.

Previously, it was thought iron deficiency was the major cause of anaemia - a condition in which the blood fails to supply the body's tissues with sufficient oxygen.

Dr Lorenzo Savioli
Dr Savioli: Test results "surprising"
But doctors at the WHO now believe they may have underestimated the role parasite infection plays in the condition.

If the results of the Zanzibar study are repeated then millions of infants across the world could in future be given medication to treat the infection.

Dr Lorenzo Savioli, the WHO's coordinator of parasitic diseases and vector control, said the results of the Zanzibar study were surprising.

Speaking on the BBC World Service programme Health Matters, he said: "We know very well that in school children if you treat for worms in this age group, where worms are intense, you can dramatically improve severe anaemia and you can have a major effect.

"But in this study we found something we were not expecting."

He added: "The significance of this would be that up until now we in the World Health Organisation recommended treatment after 24 months and not in the younger age group, because we thought infections were not so intense."

Policy change

Dr Savioli said officials at the WHO were anticipating changing the current policy.

"We are already preparing for a change of policy. Three weeks ago, we had a meeting to review the toxicology of these drugs. We approved use of these drugs in this young group because they are not toxic."

Dr Christopher Whitty, a consultant physician at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, described the findings as "extremely good news".

He said tackling the various causes of anaemia would benefit millions of children.

This story is featured in the radio programme Health Matters on the BBC World Service.

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30 Apr 02 | Health
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