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Opinion & Analysis

Deworming plan reveals consumer rights gap

No child in Kenya needs to have worms. Once a year, the Ministry of Health carries out a mass deworming, together with drug companies GSK and Merck, who provide the medications for free. file photo | nmg
No child in Kenya needs to have worms. Once a year, the Ministry of Health carries out a mass deworming, together with drug companies GSK and Merck, who provide the medications for free. file photo | nmg 

You probably have worms: if the data is to be believed. For dig beyond the sweeping statements about how worms infest school children most, and are worst in rural and slum areas, and read into the deeper findings, and half or more of us in Kenya appear to have worms at any one time.

Studies proliferate giving figures as high as 66 per cent positive on worm infestations across tested families. One set of tests on people working in food preparation found 44 per cent with worms, all handily being moved on into the food they were making.  Of course, when it’s that many people all carrying their own parasite community, it’s easy to assume that it, therefore, cannot be SO bad.

For here most of us are, with worms living inside of us, and the country is still functioning. But what it does to each of us when the latest food stall offering puts the worms back in our stomach does not make gleeful reading.  Worms affect your nutrition, consuming food and vitamins meant for your body. In time, the malnutrition undermines your concentration, makes you tired, leads to serious underperformance, at every age. So, we don’t notice those worms, but they are knocking a big hole in our life, silently and surreptitiously.

Indeed, so great is their impact that it’s been found that deworming children reduces school absenteeism by 25 per cent, and increases literacy too. Children persistently infected with worms are 13 per cent less likely to be literate when they are adults, and will earn wages more than 20 per cent lower.

Yet no child in Kenya needs to have worms. Once a year, the Ministry of Health carries out a mass deworming, together with drug companies GSK and Merck, who provide the medications for free. But the ministry picks key counties, last year 19 of them. There’s science to the choice: they choose areas where the infestation is thought to be worse.  But hard luck for the worm carriers of the other 28 counties.

Except not quite. Kenya’s public hospitals, not as part of the Ministry of Health initiative, but on their own behalf, run twice yearly deworming drives. The need is only to get the kids to the hospital and the deworming follows.

Even adults’ medication is subsidized for deworming, say the doctors. It may only cost Sh50 to get all their food back to themselves, versus sharing it with an alien inner population.  Yet hardly anyone outside the medical community seems to be quite up-to-speed on that free deworming for children offer. I tried asking, quite a lot of people, if they knew about this. I didn’t find one who did. One father, a messenger, said he did deworm his children, after he went to the doctor because one of his sons had a head rash, and was told it was worms and to treat his boys every three months thereafter.

Even he didn’t know about the free deworming. And no one else I spoke to was even deworming at all. Which I suppose makes for all those stratospheric figures on percentages infested.

Of course, I guess the hospitals would be inundated if every one of our near 20 million children was taken to the public hospital every six months for free deworming.

Yet the gap between the policy on free deworming, and the children who get the free deworming, speaks to a consumer rights gap we don’t often address. If people have rights, but don’t know it, they don’t get what they have the right to. Knowledge can be the great divider: time and time again.

Moreover, when it comes to worms, the rights of children to decent health, and the nutrition to achieve literacy and decent earnings ahead, can rest on parents knowing about the rights their children have, and exercising them.

It’s a gap that’s hurting many children, in fact. So find out your medical rights. There are many of them. And deworming is one.

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