By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Vietnam battles intestinal worms, ignorance

by in Environment.

This picture taken on November 1, 2013 shows people eating 'nom' or papaya salad with beef, a very popular street food, on a street in the old quarter of Hanoi. HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

People eating street food, in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 1, 2013. HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Some 45 million people, half of Vietnam’s population, are infected with intestinal worms, according to the head of the country’s National Institute of Malariology, Parasitology and Entomology. “It is estimated that Vietnamese people lose 1.5 million liters of blood and 15 tons of food to parasitic worms every year,” said Dr. Tran Thanh Duong in an article published on Tuesday.

Lack of proper sanitation and clean water combined with the country’s hot and humid climate make for favorable conditions for parasitic worms. They spread quickly in crowded residential areas, especially where people commonly eat raw vegetables and fish, and half-cooked meat — all of which are prime worm hosts.

Meanwhile, public awareness of the need and benefit of regular deworming has remained low, Dr. Duong said. He added that a recent small-scale survey in Ho Chi Minh City showed that 56.4% of parents do not have their children dewormed every six months, and 4.1% of parents have never had their children dewormed. In 2014, Vietnam’s government launched a public health program called 6116 Deworming, aimed at encouraging citizens to deworm themselves on January 6 and June 1 every year. It is still too early to tell how effective the program is.

While these statistics may be alarming, Vietnam is hardly alone in facing this issue. Scientific American wrote in 2009 that about half the world’s population (over 3 billion people) have at least one of the following: large roundworms, hookworms, or whipworms. “Most of those afflicted live in developing countries, where there is not enough clean drinking water or effective sanitation systems to keep infected feces from contaminating food and water, and where human excrement is used to fertilize crops,” it stated. (However, the article noted that all of these infections are treatable.)

The presence of worms has exacerbated malnutrition; The proportion of underweight children in Vietnam in 2014 was 14.5%, and the rate of short and stunted children was 24.9%. Across Southeast Asia, the total number of chronically malnourished people has reached 60 million. Indonesia made big strides by halving its number of hungry people over the past 25 years to 7.6% of its population, but  20 million are still left in dire straits. According to the most recent data from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the prevalence of stunting in children under five in Indonesia in 2013 was close to 37%.

Last week Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla said that only 30% of the country’s population has access to clean water. Even in Jakarta, the capital, only half the population has access to clean water, and people are forced to pay much higher prices for clean water than what the water company would charge. Furthermore, many impoverished children’s homes and “playgrounds” in Southeast Asia are overrun with garbage, human waste, and toxic substances. “When you have children running around barefeet, then coming in contact with excrete, it’s really easy to catch the worms and this of course impacts their development and growth,” said Dr. Aidan Cronin, Chief of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program at UNICEF Indonesia.

Indonesia has launched a five-year public-education plan to completely eliminate open-defecation, and over the same time period plans to build ten million new connection points for clean water. There are too many lives at stake for the rest of Southeast Asia not to follow suit soon.