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Malaria Jeopardizes Children's Performance in School

Malaria is a huge problem in Kenya and other countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Much research has been devoted to the impact of malaria on children five years and under, but there have been virtually no studies on how the scourge affects school-age children. Research conducted in Kenya and recently published in The Lancet says malarial parasites lead to anemia and absenteeism in school. And that affects children's performance. The study concludes that supplying children with malaria drugs can improve their health and classroom performance. Cathy Majtenyi has the details and has filed this report for VOA.

At Bar Kowino Primary School in the western Kenyan town of Bondo, students are learning to speak Ki'Swahili, the national language.

But for some of these children, concentrating on the lesson and understanding it is a big problem.

Most of these children are battling malaria. It is endemic to the area.

Malaria is caused by parasites and is often fatal. The parasites enter the bloodstream through the bite of an infected mosquito.

The disease is the number one killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa. About one million children there die of malaria each year.

Many children in areas such as Bondo carry the parasites without having symptoms of the disease.

But if left untreated, the parasites cause anemia and that leads to absenteeism and poor school performance.

Angeline Okinda teaches at Bar Kowino Primary School. She said many of her students "Had very high fevers, they were vomiting. At times they could not eat. You know, when you are sick you cannot eat well."

To tackle the problem and malaria's impact on the classroom, a team of scientists from the University of Nairobi and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied elementary school students at 30 schools in western Kenya.

They examined the effect of malarial parasites and anemia on school performance.

Half the children received three doses of anti-malaria drugs every four months for a year. The medications kill the parasites. The rest of the students got placebos.

Benson Estambale is director of the University of Nairobi's Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases. He says the children who received the drugs showed impressive results, "We can actually prevent anemia in 50 percent of our cases. We can actually improve class performance and cognitive development in these children," Estambale said.

Estambale says Kenya's government should provide the drugs to vulnerable schoolchildren, "We have very important evidence now to show that malaria prevention programs should be integrated into school health programs," Estambale said.

Dr. Willis Akhwale heads the Ministry of Health's Malaria Control Program.

He suggested that the ministry will provide the medications to children in areas that have a high incidence of malaria.

"Malaria is top on our agenda in this country, and anything that will reduce malaria and make people more productive is very, very welcome," Akhwale said.

Starting early next year, researchers plan to duplicate the study in other areas of Kenya.