Children in school

Poor health and malnutrition may prevent children from attending school and from learning while there. The equivalent of more than 200 million school years are lost each year in low income countries as a result of ill health, and the impact on learning and cognition is equivalent to a deficit of more than 630 million IQ points. 

School health and nutrition programmes are amongst the most cost effective interventions that exist to improve both children’s education and health. They can add four to six points to IQ levels, 10% to participation in schooling, and one to two years of education. (See World Bank Education Pages and UNESCO’s  EFA Global Monitoring Report).

Globally, the number of children reaching school age is estimated to be 1.2 billion children, 18% of the world’s population, with 88% of these children living in less developed countries where there is the most illness.

In general, improving health and nutrition brings the greatest education benefits to the poor and most vulnerable. For example, the greatest benefits of deworming are seen in children who have heavy worm loads and poor nutritional status. 

In many countries, girls are enrolled at and attend school less than boys. Malaria prevention can help reduce the enrolment gap between girls and boys, as can improving access to safe water and hygienic sanitation facilities see school sanitation.  

Stunting (low height for age) and underweight (low weight for age) are dangerously common in school-age children in low income countries and are frequently linked to poor mental and educational development as children reach school age. Poor school performance can also result from common deficiencies of micronutrients such as iron, iodine and vitamin A.

Globally, millions of children are also infected with parasitic helminths (or parasitic worms), with the greatest burden of disease in the poorest countries. Helminth infections are the single largest contributor to the disease burden of children aged 5 to 14 years both in terms of prevalence and intensity of infection, and are estimated to account for over 12% of the total disease burden in girls and over 11% of the burden in boys. Chronic worm infection can contribute to malnutrition through loss of appetite, malabsorption of nutrients and anaemia through loss of blood (especially in the case of whipworm and schistosoma infections).  Children with chronic worm infections may be stunted and underweight, which in turn can lead to long term retardation of mental and physical development (Jukes et al. 2008). 

Key documents

  • Hall A, Drake L and Bundy DAP (2001) Public health measures to control helminth infections. In Nutritional Anemias, U.  Ramakrishnan (ed) CRC Press.
  • Jukes, MCH, LJ Drake, DAP Bundy (2008). School Health, Nutrition and Education for All: Levelling the Playing Field. Cambridge, MA, CABI Publishing.
  • Partnership for Child Development  (2001) Anaemia in children in eight countries in Africa and Asia.  Public Health Nutrition (4.3) pp 749-756  

Other Key Resources:

As part of the WHO Information Series on School Health see various documents: