Parasites the cause of poor performance.

Why Pinoy kids may have trouble learning.
By Shirley Oh
Inquirer News Service

IN THE FIRST national diagnostic test given in 2002, only 30 percent of Filipino students passed in English, 28 percent in Science and 27 percent in Mathematics. Many public school students graduate from elementary barely knowing how to read, write and count.

Often the alarming state of Philippine education is blamed on lack of competent teachers, educational facilities and supplies, and budget, as well as chronic malnutrition.

Academic interventions, such as Math clinics and bridge programs, seem not to have changed the situation significantly.

Dr. Vicente Belizario Jr., deputy director of the National Institutes of Health-Phils. and a professor of Parasitology at the College of Public Health in the University of the Philippines Manila, believes one of the most basic issues that should be addressed is the Filipino children's health.

He points out that stomach ache and diarrhea are the most common reasons for absences.

Worms

Belizario says there is more than a 50-percent chance that kids who perform poorly in class have intestinal helminthiasis -- in other words, worms.

Intestinal parasitic infection with one or more species of worms, results from contact with surfaces, food or anything contaminated with human or animal feces.

At least 20 million Filipinos have parasites. The infection, particularly common in the tropics, reduces a person's work capacity, lowers concentration and causes abdominal pains and digestive problems. Worms can consume 0.05 cubic centimeters of blood per day. With a lifespan of five to six months, they are a major cause of malnutrition that can make learning difficult.

In 1999, Belizario's study in seven sections of third-graders at the San Vicente Elementary School found that 82 percent of the children had worms. The highest rate of infestation was found among the worst performers in the lowest section. The findings established a correlation between parasites and class performance.

Studies in 2001 among Grade 1 students in different regions and cities in the country showed that 67 percent of those surveyed had worms. Another nationwide survey in 2004 showed that 66 percent of the country's preschoolers also had intestinal parasites.

Fastest solution

The obvious and fastest solution to the problem, of course, is deworming. Though efforts of the Department of Health, such as Garantisadong Pambata (deworming for preschoolers), focus on this, Belizario says they are not enough.

"These efforts are not as effective as they should be because of a number of factors," he says, citing, among others, poor hygiene, poor environmental sanitation, poor delivery and low coverage of public health services, and the low impact of control efforts due to lack of resources.

DOH targeted preschoolers and Grade 1 students but worms affect everyone, including adults. But the biggest problem, Belizario says, is that parasitic infection is not considered a priority.

Now government officials in Biñan, Laguna, are changing that perception. Romana Ezpinosa, district supervisor of Biñan Public Schools, supports Belizario's program of periodic deworming of public school children.

"I have high ambitions for the children of Biñan," she says. Getting the support of the local government and the school board, Espinoza and Belizario conducted semi-annual deworming starting in 1999 for all public schools in the Biñan district, starting with the San Vicente Elementary School.

To overcome resistance from both parents and some teachers (the program meant additional work for them), Espinoza turned the deworming program into a school affair that kids could enjoy and parents would approve of.

"We set up a grand parade and held contests for the children," she says. "We also staged plays about good hygiene and deworming."

Improvements

Between 1998 and 1999, the number of infected students markedly decreased, Belizario says, "From 88 percent, we went down to 66 percent." In three years, infection was down to 38 percent. Academic improvements were also seen.
"Biñan ranked second and third in Science and Math in 2003, from its 15th position the two previous years," Expinoza says. "In 2004, out of the 20 top performing schools in Laguna, five were from Biñan."

She realizes that the deworming program is not the sole reason for the academic improvement but only one of the steps to achieve the goal of quality education.

Belizario says, "Deworming is not a one-shot deal. It needs to be sustained. It is ideal that we deworm twice a year-in summer and Christmas -- to ensure that we remain worm-free."

Biñan's success appears to have inspired Santa Rosa, which is now drawing up its own program. Asked why other districts are slow to follow Biñan's example, Belizario cites budget problems and different priorities.

"Biñan is lucky to have the budget and progressive-thinking officials," he says. The municipality also benefits from the support of Janssen Pharmaceutica, makers of Antiox, which pledged to provide 48,000 500-mg chewable tablets to cover the semi-annual campaign among 24,000 children.

Antiox, a relatively affordable one-dose treatment, can eradicate and prevent worms for 4-6 months. It contains 500 mg of broad-spectrum Mebendazole, the World Health Organization-recommended safe and effective dosage for both children (aged 2 and above) and adults.

Recently, Rezza Custodio, product manager for Mebendazole Antiox, and Jondy Syjuco, franchise manager of Consumer Pharma Division, Janssen Pharmaceutica, invited media people to lunch to celebrate the success of Biñan and to generate support for deworming programs in other municipalities and provinces.


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