Why the health sector and the education sector need to work together
It is common sense to any parent or educator that the health and educational development of children are inextricably linked. Children learn best when they are physically and emotionally healthy.
Yet school-age children in the developing world bear the greatest burden of many infectious and non-communicable diseases. Frequent illnesses lead to reduced school attendance, reduces the children’s ability to concentrate and participate when in class and lowers their overall level of learning.
If we are to fulfill our collective commitment to provide a good quality education for all children, improving the health of children through simple, safe, affordable interventions needs to become a core part of every school’s mission.
Health and education and closely linked
For too long ministries of health and education have worked in silos. There have been few incentives to work together and even fewer examples of successful collaboration. But having worked in both sectors -first at GAVI and now at the Global Partnership for Education- it is clear to me that while their specific goals may be different, they are inter-linked. Research clearly shows that educated parents, especially mothers, are better informed and make better choices to support their children’s health.
Schools are powerful social institutions that can improve every child’s health and wellbeing and enhance the learning and life chances of each generation through school health programs. Such programs can be effective at reaching disadvantaged communities which may not otherwise access even basic health screening services that can be provided through schools.
School health programs are good investments
Investments in school health programs are also great value for money. Early screening for hearing or vision problems and annual deworming campaigns can be cost effective ways to detect and respond to children’s health issues early on, reducing or eliminating the risk and costs associated with more complex health problems and conditions developing later on. Coordinated planning and action early on by health and education ministry officials is a sound investment of scarce resources.
Investments in basic health programs such as vision and hearing screening, malaria control, deworming or providing micronutrient supplements improve children’s physical and cognitive development and educational attainment.
For parents, school based health programs offer basic health checks and care which they otherwise may not be able to access or afford.
Deworming is just one example
One example of this cross-sector collaboration is school-based deworming. More than 600 million children worldwide are at risk of parasitic worm infection and around 400 million children remain untreated. Annually, 43 countries in Africa and eight in South East Asia account for the vast majority of this number, having the highest concentration of school age children in need of preventive chemotherapy (WHO).
Worm infections can lead to multiple problems for a child. They can reduce nutrient uptake, leading to malnourishment and anemia and can affect both physical and cognitive development. Taken together these affects represent a serious threat to a child’s health and wellbeing.
The good news is that there is a proven, safe and simple solution to treating parasitic worm infections through school-based administration of medicines that cost less than 50 cents per child per dose. Anevaluation of Kenya’s National School-Based Deworming Program showed that the initiative had reduced serious worm infections by half and reduced school absenteeism by 25%. Mass school-based deworming turns out to be a “best-buy” investment for both education and health (Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT).
In recent years, major pharmaceutical companies, including Glaxo Smith Klein and Johnson and Johnson, have generously committed to support global deworming efforts and have donated hundreds of millions of doses of proven deworming drugs for school-age children
To be effective, national school-based deworming programs need ministries of education and health to work together, providing data on numbers of school age children at risk, requesting the drugs early and distributing and administering them through school based health programs in a timely and effective way.
India has done just that, announcing its first national de-worming day on February 9, 2015. Other countries should follow India’s and Kenya’s lead.