Education a "social vaccine" against malaria
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Education a "social vaccine" against malaria

University of Alberta researchers studying malaria in Africa have found evidence that education of women may provide a more effective “social vaccine” for reducing childhood infection rates than the variety injected through a syringe.

“We found a surprisingly protective effect — surprising in terms of the magnitude — of maternal education. The rates of malaria were strikingly different in the children,” said Dr. Michael Hawkes, an expert in tropical childhood diseases who served as senior author on the study.

“In the title to the article, we asked is maternal education a social vaccine for malaria, since it is having an effect that is actually of greater magnitude than the leading biomedical vaccine.”

Malaria remains one of the world’s greatest public health threats, affecting more than 200 million people and killing some 500,000 each year. Close to 90 per cent of the cases come from sub-Saharan African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Hawkes has been researching malaria for a number of years.


The country right in the centre of Africa has been ranked as the least feasible for malaria elimination, in part because of ideal conditions for disease-carrying mosquitoes and in part due to a prolonged civil conflict that has degraded public health infrastructure.

Hawkes has maintained field sites in the eastern part of Congo, which is the region most affected by civil strife. Much of his work has focused on potential drug therapies for malaria and new diagnostic tools, but he has also been interested in social factors that help determine who gets the disease.

For this particular study, Hawkes and his team conducted malaria tests on 647 children who showed up at vaccination clinics, while also asking their mothers to complete a survey inquiring about their level of education and household wealth.

Among the mothers who had no formal education, 30 per cent of their children were found to be carriers of malaria, the study found.

However, that rate dropped nearly in half — to 17 per cent — for kids whose moms had received primary school education. The rate dropped even further to 15 per cent if the mothers had secondary education.

Hawkes said education has several positive effects against disease. For example, the primary school curriculum in Congo tends to feature lessons on basic hygiene and mosquitoes, including the practice of sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets.

“We saw a very clear trend with increasing bed net use and increasing maternal education,” he said. “So that tells us that higher educated women are using the prevention measure that works.”

In addition to this improved health knowledge, educated women also tend to live in wealthier households that can afford bed nets, clinical care and other resources to prevent disease. As well, women with formal schooling are more likely to own cellphones and have better social connectivity, which tends to make them more empowered to access care, Hawkes said.

He noted that a vaccine now being rolled out in certain parts of Africa has an efficacy rate of about 30 per cent.

As such, the greater than 50 per cent reduction in childhood malaria rates cited in the U of A study signals maternal education is a potentially more effective tool.

“I don’t want to downplay the importance of a vaccine for malaria. That’s a major event. However, something so simple as educating women can also have a profound effect,” Hawkes said.

The study is published in the academic journal Pathogens and Global Health.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

source : Calgary SUN
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