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.
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.
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.
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....").
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.
For programmes that treat only children detected as infected (by screening), a single dose of deworming drugs probably increased weight (0.58 kg, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.76, three trials, 139 participants; moderate quality evidence) and may have increased 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).
For a single dose of deworming drugs given to all children in endemic areas, there were mixed effects on weight, with no effects evident in seven trials, but large effects in two. Overall our analysis indicated that we are uncertain whether there was an effect on weight (nine trials, 3058 participants; very low quality evidence). For haemoglobin, deworming made little or no difference (0.02 g/dL, 95% CI -0.05 to 0.09, four trials, 1992 participants; low quality evidence), and we don't know if it improves cognition (one trial, very low quality evidence).
For multiple doses of deworming drugs with follow up for up to one year given to all children in endemic areas, we are uncertain if there is an effect on weight (0.06 kg, 95% CI -0.17 to 0.30; seven trials, 2460 participants; very low quality evidence); cognition (three trials, very low quality evidence); or school attendance (4% higher attendance; 95% CI -6 to 14; two trials, 75 clusters and 143 individually randomized participants, very low quality evidence). For haemoglobin, the intervention may have little or no effect (mean 0.01 g/dL lower; 95% CI 0.14 lower to 0.13 higher; four trials, 807 participants; low quality evidence).
For multiple doses of deworming drugs with follow up beyond one year given to all children in endemic areas 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 0.98kg), whilst the other four trials did not show an effect, including a cluster-RCT of 27,995 children in a moderate prevalence area. Overall, we are uncertain if there is an effect for weight (five trials, 302 clusters and 1045 individually randomized participants; very low quality evidence). For other outcomes, we are uncertain whether deworming affects height (-0.26 cm; 95%CI -0.84 to 0.31, three trials, 1219 participants); haemoglobin (0.02 g/dL, 95%CI 0.3 to 0.27, two trials, 1365 participants); cognition (two trials), or school attendance (mean attendance 5% higher, 95% CI -0.5 to 10.5, one trial, 50 clusters).
Stratified analysis to seek subgroup effects into low, medium and high helminth endemicity areas did not demonstrate any pattern of effect. We did not detect any significant effects for any primary outcomes in a sensitivity analysis only including trials with adequate allocation concealment.
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.
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, community deworming seems to have little or no effect, and the evidence in relation to cognition, 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.