New research suggests that the ability of children in Africa to perform well in school could be dramatically improved through the provision of basic malaria education and treatment.
Most malaria prevention programs focus on children under 5. Infections are less fatal among older children, but many harbor malaria parasites without displaying any symptoms of the disease. If such a condition is left untreated, a young victim's health often deteriorates, said lead researcher Dr. Sian Clarke of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Watch: Simple Malaria Intervention in African Schools Leads to Big Improvement in Students' Performance
"The malaria parasites destroy the red blood cells, and as a consequence of that you get chronic anemia in children," Clarke said. "Generally, children who are anemic feel weak, they're tired, they're generally lethargic, they are going to be less active and less fully engaged."
The research involved nearly 2,000 schoolchildren in Mali, led by Save the Children and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, alongside the National Institute for Public Health Research in Mali.
About half the children were given a malaria control package delivered by their teachers, which included prevention education, insecticide-treated nets and anti-malarial treatment. Malaria infection rates fell from 80 percent to just 5 percent, and cases of anemia were almost halved compared with the control group.
"And the children's capacity to pay attention for longer was increased," Clarke said.
Save the Children has helped expand the program to 400 schools in Mali. It was the second African country to host the trial.
"The first study was done in Kenya, an area of year-round [malaria] transmission," Clarke said. "This study was done in Mali, an area with malaria concentrated in just a few months. And the fact that we saw similar results in both settings would suggest that where malaria is a significant problem and the levels of infection are high, then you might expect to see a similar impact in other settings."
Aid workers say preventing anemia in Malian schoolgirls is particularly important because of high teenage marriage and pregnancy rates. Anemia during pregnancy can lead to a low birth weight and a higher risk of child mortality.