Deworming drugs for treating soil-transmitted intestinal worms in children: effects on nutrition and school performance

The main soil-transmitted worms are roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Infections are common in tropical and subtropical areas, particularly in children from low-income areas where there is inadequate sanitation, overcrowding, low levels of education, and lack of access to health care. These infections sometimes cause malnutrition, poor growth, and anaemia in children, and some experts believe they cause poor performance at school. While improved sanitation and hygiene are likely to be helpful, drugs can also be used. In one approach, individuals found to be infected on screening are treated. Evidence from these trials suggests this probably improves weight and may improve haemoglobin values, but the evidence base is small. In another approach, currently recommended by the WHO, and much more extensively investigated, all school children are treated. In trials that follow up children after a single dose of deworming, and after multiple doses with follow up for over a year, we do not know if these programmes have an effect on weight, height, school attendance, or school performance; they may have little or no effect on haemoglobin or cognition.

One trial of a million children examined death and was completed in 2005 but the authors have not yet published the results.

Authors' conclusions: 

Screening children for intestinal helminths and then treating infected children appears promising, but the evidence base is small. Routine deworming drugs given to school children has been more extensively investigated, and has not shown benefit on weight in most studies, except for substantial weight changes in three trials conducted 15 years ago or more. Two of these trials were carried out in the same high prevalence setting. For haemoglobin and cognition, community deworming seems to have little or no effect, and the evidence in relation to school attendance, and school performance is generally poor, with no obvious or consistent effect. Our interpretation of this data is that it is probably misleading to justify contemporary deworming programmes based on evidence of consistent benefit on nutrition, haemoglobin, school attendance or school performance as there is simply insufficient reliable information to know whether this is so.

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Background: 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends treating all school children at regular intervals with deworming drugs in areas where helminth infection is common. The WHO state this will improve nutritional status, haemoglobin, and cognition and thus will improve health, intellect, and school attendance. Consequently, it is claimed that school performance will improve, child mortality will decline, and economic productivity will increase. Given the important health and societal benefits attributed to this intervention, we sought to determine whether they are based on reliable evidence.

Objectives: 

To summarize the effects of giving deworming drugs to children to treat soil-transmitted intestinal worms (nematode geohelminths) on weight, haemoglobin, and cognition; and the evidence of impact on physical well being, school attendance, school performance, and mortality.

Search strategy: 

In February 2012, we searched the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialized Register, MEDLINE, EMBASE, LILACS, mRCT, and reference lists, and registers of ongoing and completed trials.

Selection criteria: 

We selected randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs comparing deworming drugs for geohelminth worms with placebo or no treatment in children aged 16 years or less, reporting on weight, haemoglobin, and formal test of intellectual development. In cluster-RCTs treating communities or schools, we also sought data on school attendance, school performance, and mortality. We included trials that included health education with deworming.

Data collection and analysis: 

At least two authors independently assessed the trials, evaluated risk of bias, and extracted data. Continuous data were analysed using the mean difference (MD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI). Where data were missing, we contacted trial authors. We used GRADE to assess evidence quality, and this is reflected in the wording we used: high quality ("deworming improves...."); moderate quality ("deworming probably improves..."); low quality ("deworming may improve...."); and very low quality ("we don't know if deworming improves....").

Main results: 

We identified 42 trials, including eight cluster trials, that met the inclusion criteria. Excluding one trial where data are awaited, the 41 trials include 65,168 participants.

Screening then treating

For children known to be infected with worms (by screening), a single dose of deworming drugs may increase weight (0.58 kg, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.76, three trials, 139 participants; low quality evidence) and may increase haemoglobin (0.37 g/dL, 95% CI 0.1 to 0.64, two trials, 108 participants; low quality evidence), but we do not know if there is an effect on cognitive functioning (two trials, very low quality evidence).

Single dose deworming for all children

In trials treating all children, a single dose of deworming drugs gave mixed effects on weight, with no effects evident in seven trials, but large effects in two (nine trials, 3058 participants, very low quality evidence). The two trials with a positive effect were from the same very high prevalence setting and may not be easily generalised elsewhere. Single dose deworming probably made little or no effect on haemoglobin (mean difference (MD) 0.06 g/dL, 95% CI -0.06 to 0.17, three trials, 1005 participants; moderate evidence), and may have little or no effect on cognition (two trials, low quality evidence).

Mulitple dose deworming for all children

Over the first year of follow up, multiple doses of deworming drugs given to all children may have little or no effect on weight (MD 0.06 kg, 95% CI -0.17 to 0.30; seven trials, 2460 participants; low quality evidence); haemoglobin, (mean 0.01 g/dL lower; 95% CI 0.14 lower to 0.13 higher; four trials, 807 participants; low quality evidence); cognition (three trials, 30,571 participants, low quality evidence); or school attendance (4% higher attendance; 95% CI -6 to 14; two trials, 30,243 participants; low quality evidence);

For time periods beyond a year, there were five trials with weight measures. One cluster-RCT of 3712 children in a low prevalence area showed a large effect (average gain of 0.98 kg), whilst the other four trials did not show an effect, including a cluster-RCT of 27,995 children in a moderate prevalence area (five trials, 37,306 participants; low quality evidence). For height, we are uncertain whether there is an effect of deworming (-0.26 cm; 95% CI -0.84 to 0.31, three trials, 6652 participants; very low quality evidence). Deworming may have little or no effect on haemoglobin (0.00 g/dL, 95%CI -0.08 to 0.08, two trials, 1365 participants, low quality evidence); cognition (two trials, 3720 participants; moderate quality evidence). For school attendance, we are uncertain if there is an effect (mean attendance 5% higher, 95% CI -0.5 to 10.5, approximately 20,000 participants, very low quality evidence).

Stratified analysis to seek subgroup effects into low, medium and high helminth endemicity areas did not demonstrate any pattern of effect. In a sensitivity analysis that only included trials with adequate allocation concealment, we detected no significant effects for any primary outcomes.

One million children were randomized in a deworming trial from India with mortality as the primary outcome. This was completed in 2005 but the authors have not published the results.