Travesty One: China’s Intestinal Worms Epidemic
Our group, the Rural Education Action Project (REAP), did a study in 2010. We discovered that 40% of students in Guizhou rural elementary schools were infected with intestinal worms. Invisible to the naked eye, intestinal worms quietly sap valuable nutrients from their host, leading to stunted growth and malnutrition. Moreover, intestinal roundworm infection is associated with poorer academic performance, lower scores on memory and intelligence tests, and lower school attendance rates. So let me just make sure that this is clear: As late as 2010, 4 out of 10 rural Chinese children in our sample were attending school … and living life … with worms in their stomachs.
At that time, we wrote a policy brief to the State Council, informing the top leadership of the severity of the situation. The reaction was swift. China’s top leaders stated that this was unacceptable. They promised to address this problem as soon as possible. They pushed relevant agencies to investigate and explore effective ways to eliminate this alarming health problem. We were left hopeful.
Three years later, in May 2013, we repeated the same study. And to our dismay, this time we found that nearly 50% of children had intestinal worms. If our study is representative and half of the school-aged children in Guizhou—and most likely similar shares in other southern Chinese provinces—have worms, then this means that millions of kids are still infected with worms and are still suffering the consequences for their nutrition, health, and ability to learn.
To put it simply: This is a travesty.
Why? In part, because this is a disease that is typically found in the poorest developing countries – not in a modernizing, increasingly wealthy superpower like China. Even more to the point, this is a travesty because this disease is very easy to control: a child infected with worms can be cured for a full six months simply by taking two deworming pills. These pills are super safe (medically, one of the safest medicines in the world) and super effective (worms are almost completely eliminated within one to two days). The medicine is also extremely inexpensive: the highest quality deworming tablets in China cost only 2 yuan per tablet. So 2 tablets, for 2 yuan each, will keep a child worm-free for a full six months. Yup, you read that right: for a total of 8 yuan per child per year, China could be entirely worm-free. This devastating health problem could be averted for only 200 million yuan per year (if every student in every poor county – all 25 million of them – took their deworming medicine). That is what we call a travesty.
Travesty Two: The Vision Disaster
We discovered Travesty Two after one of Scott’s former grad students did a study in one of the poorest Tibetan autonomous counties in Gansu in the early 2000s. He showed that when rural elementary school students were given eyeglasses when they were nearsighted, their educational performance improved significantly.
After seeing this study, we met with the only group of academic eye doctors in China that was working on this issue with any degree of long-term commitment—a small group of opthamologists at the Zhongshan Optometry Center (ZOC) at Zhongshan University. We were told that, by their estimates, around 30% of 10 to 12 year olds in grade 5 and grade 6 were nearsighted and needed glasses. No one knew for sure, but the ZOC group had worked a lot in China’s urban schools and schools in the rural areas of their own Guangdong province and they thought these would be plausible rates for vision problems—even in the poor rural areas of Central and Western China.
Armed with this information, we started to do our own informal census of vision problems in rural China as we went about our other research activities. At first, we were puzzled. Over the course of several years, we visited hundreds of elementary schools throughout rural China—in Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Sichuan, Henan, Hebei and more. And in all these visits, we almost never saw elementary school students wearing glasses. At most, in a school of 100 or more, there were one or two kids wearing glasses. What was going on?
In collaboration with ZOC and our partners from Renmin University and Shaanxi Normal University, we set out to find out. We asked three questions: How many of these rural elementary school students had poor vision? Of the students with poor vision, how many were wearing glasses and how many were not? And what would happen if kids with poor vision that were not wearing glasses had a pair to put on?
What did we find? Just as ZOC had predicted so many years before, nearly 30 percent of elementary school students (in grades 4 to 6) in rural areas have poor vision. But then we found the really troubling part. Of those with poor vision, only one in six (15%) were wearing glasses. The rest had never even been prescribed a pair. How much did this oversight matter? Well, when we gave glasses to students with poor vision, we found that their academic performance improved enormously (relative to students with poor vision that did not wear glasses). Were we surprised? Well, no! Teachers in rural areas today still use the blackboard for most of their classes. So, if these students can’t see, how can they ever hope to learn?
Our study revealed that when you put a pair of glasses on a student with vision problem, a student that was barely passing (scoring, say, 65 on a test), suddenly becomes a student in the middle of the pack, scoring 75. Ten points is a huge rise in performance – for an investment of only about 300 yuan for a proper pair of glasses. Assuming these glasses can last a rural child for about 2 years, the investment is only half that much on an annual basis. Thus, if there are 5 million children in grades 4, 5 and 6 in China’s poor rural areas, and if 30 percent of them need glasses, then Travesty Two could be averted for an investment of only 5 million * 30% * 150 yuan per year = 225 million yuan per year.
Again, a serious and wide-ranging impediment to rural Chinese children’s learning and healthy development is being allowed to persist in this modernizing superpower when effective, low-cost solutions are available and easy to put into place. And so we say again, this is a travesty.
How is that China can’t find a solution to such simple social problems, social problems that are endangering the entire nation’s future?
If we were to digress, we could give you even more examples. Did you read last month’s column? In the face of a crippling anemia epidemic among young rural students, we have shown that for only 8 yuan per day, all of these students could receive a nutritious lunch that would give them nearly half of their daily nutritional needs. Such a program would reduce micronutrient deficiencies and improve the educational performance of not only the children that were malnourished (and, indeed, up to 30 percent of students in poor rural areas are not getting enough nutrients in their diets), but also improve the test scores of the rest of the class—most likely because in classes where all children are healthy, there is more focus (and hence more learning) for all.
And the most frustrating part of all is that we know the money is there to spend. Build one less freeway. Open one less sports stadium. Slow down the construction of the high-speed rail network (build it, but, build it at a slower pace). And all of this could be paid for. Eliminating worms, fighting malnutrition and reducing poor vision are all concrete, cost effective steps that would have a huge and immediate impact on educational performance. Travesties!
If not being able to fix such a simple problem is a travesty, what do we call the situation that has allowed the problem to emerge in the first place? A travesty’s travesty.
In this case, the blame lies in two places: with the parents of the children and with the system in which they are going to school and seeking health care.
First, we believe the blame lies in part with rural parents and other family members. Why? To put it bluntly, our research has taught us that parents—and especially grandparents, who are often rural children’s day-to-day caregivers—are often ignorant and misinformed. When you ask a person in rural Guizhou why they don’t deworm their children, they frequently state right out: “Worms are not bad for you. You need them to digest your food.” Most moms do not know that worms are passed on through human night soil. Grandma still rarely washes her hands before cooking. No one tells their children or grandchildren that they should always wear shoes outside.
In a recent project we worked with local doctors to deworm children. We gave them two high-quality, super safe deworming tablets with the simple instructions: “Take these two tablets before you go to bed tonight.” In no small number of our households, Grandpa or Dad had the child take one and throw the other away. Why? “Too many worms is not good, but, everyone needs some of them,” they said. Of course, without completing the deworming process, the worms almost immediately reproduce in the child’s stomach and intestines. Hence, in this very real way, Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa are to blame.
The myths about eyeglasses are even more formidable. We worked with some high quality optometrists on a project last year and identified the students in each class that had poor vision and needed glasses. Armed with this information, we asked the parents and grandparents of children identified to have poor vision if their children had vision problems. More than 80% said they did not. But, that is not all. It is not only that they did not know. They also did not seem to care. We asked the same parents—more than 2000 of them—whether they would get their children glasses if their vision was bad enough that they could not see the board and it was affecting their grades. More than half of the parents said that even under these circumstances children who are younger than 12 years old should not get glasses. “Glasses hurt the eyes of children,” they said. “Not wearing glasses make the eyes tougher and they get better on their own.” Of course, none of this is true. Parents are not paying attention and even if they were, they are incapable of responding because they do not know. Again, Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa are to blame.
In fact, though rural children’s caregivers may be an immediate cause of persistent poor health, their ignorance is likely not their fault. Parents and their children may well be victims of China’s rapid development. It is our hypothesis that China has simply developed too fast. In one generation, China moved up the income ladder a distance that took four or five generations in other countries. In those countries, there was time during the development process for ordinary citizens to learn about nutrition … and health … and parenting … and how to educate their children for a new higher-wage economy. However, China’s families—especially those in poor remote areas—did not have the same chance to catch up. When Grandma was raising her own children—not so many years ago—she thought she was raising subsistence farmers. To be successful, all her children had to do was to survive childhood and grow up to learn how to follow a bullock around their paddy land. Such an upbringing was also sufficient for an unskilled worker working on a construction site hauling bricks or in a factory assembling widgets. Now, however, these same grandmas are raising grandkids who need to be nurtured in a way that allows them to develop to a point in which they can go to high school and college and learn algebra and calculus and English and Chinese literature and go on to take more demanding jobs. Having anemia or worms or being a bit nearsighted did not matter in the past. Now, in a newly competitive and demanding economy, it may mean the difference between success and failure.
So if it is not really the parents’ fault, whose fault is it? Why are rural children still growing up without treatment for their basic health needs? Why do Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa not know what they should do to take care of their kids? When there is a market failure or an information breakdown it is the role of the government to step in and correct the failure. And in this case we must place the blame—the ultimate blame—on the government. They are not playing their proper role and it is costing China very dearly.
The problem here is actually very similar to that of parents: it is a problem of ignorance and misinformation—either due to absence of knowledge or due to purposeful neglect. When the top leadership directed the Ministry of Finance to fund a deworming program in Guizhou, the top officials at the Center for Disease Control did not support it. Most top Center for Disease Control officials do not even know that intestinal worm rates are nearly 50% in rural schools in Southwest China. Or, maybe they do know but just do not care. Out of sight, out of mind. The budget for high profile “urban-oriented, rich-man” diseases, like diabetes, cancer and heart disease expands every year. Meanwhile, it seems that no one is interested in the unseen infections in poor rural schools. In fact, if one looks for data on any disease that primarily affects poor rural areas—anemia or myopia or intestinal worms—it is almost always difficult (if not impossible) to find.
Government officials are also simultaneously territorial and deathly afraid of taking responsibility, even when the potential gains are large. In most of the rest of the world, a lot of health care takes place in schools. And when you think about it, what a great place to do so! When you’re trying to reach kids in a school, all of the target population is together in one place. The returns to conducting health and nutrition interventions in schools are high because the students are both concentrated and easily monitored. However, because of the fear of taking responsibility, there are currently rules in China against carrying out any health care activities in schools. China used to conduct these activities and did so with great efficiency and effectiveness. Every older Chinese remembers eating “bao-ta” candy, a sweetened deworming tablet, on an annual or semi-annual basis. At that early stage, China nearly wiped out intestinal worms. But, today, for some reason, they simply don’t do it anymore. Our team—even when accompanied by doctors—was not allowed to give the students deworming medicine. They had to take their medicine home to take it. Once they got there, they had to convince their illiterate grandmas that the doctor wanted them to take two tablets because worms were no good. The state—that should have known better—pushed its responsibility off onto Grandma and Grandpa. And we know how that worked out.
The same happens in eye care. Schools regularly would not allow us in—even though we were giving high quality eye exams and free glasses to students who desperately needed them. Principals and teachers are just as misinformed as parents. “Eyeglasses are no good for grade 4 and grade 5 students,” they said. “Eye exercises are enough. Eyeglasses will make your eyes worse.” Even when the local town doctors came to give eye exams, principals invariably took the list they were given of those with potentially poor vision and filed it away without taking action. If schools are so misinformed and inactive, how can we expect parents to become informed enough to help their children become healthy?
Travesty, Travesty, Travesty. This country has spent billions on new facilities and teacher salaries. And they claim that they are committed to investing as much as it takes to significantly improve rural educational outcomes. But after all this investment and all this talk, China’s rural children are still sick. They are malnourished. They can’t see. And most of all, they can’t learn.
Today, these huge investments may be wasted. And China is missing an opportunity to spend less money in smarter ways so as to ensure that they are actually educating their young people in a way in which they can learn and thrive. When intestinal worms are eradicated, when glasses are prescribed, when kids get nutritious food, they learn, they grow and they thrive. But when they don’t, as they they are not in so many rural schools today, it is nothing less than a TRAVESTY. The time has come for change.
About this series:
REAP co-directors Scott Rozelle and Linxiu Zhang are writing a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." See below for more columns in this series:
> Column 1: Why We Need to Worry About Inequality
> Column 5: How to Cure China's Largest Epidemic
> Column 6: A Tale of Two Travesties
>Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide
> Column 9: China's Most Vulnerable Children
> Column 10: Why Drop Out?
> Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education
> Column 12: Reforming China's Vocational Schools (in Chinese)