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What are intestinal worms?

Intestinal worms, also called ‘soil-transmitted helminth infections’ or STH, are part of a group of parasitic and bacterial conditions known as neglected tropical diseases.

A woman crouches in a stream using a bucket to collect water in Nigeria.

Helminths are worm-like intestinal parasites that live inside the digestive system and feed off nutrients from their host, causing the infected person to become malnourished and susceptible to disease and chronic illness.

Adult worms live in a person’s intestine, where they produce thousands of eggs each day. The infection is spread when eggs are passed in human faeces and contaminate the soil – a problem that is common in poor communities with inadequate sanitation. The eggs can be ingested when contaminated soil is found on unwashed vegetables, water sources or unwashed hands.

At first, symptoms of intestinal worms may be mild or non-existent, but infections can lead to diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weakness, anaemia and nutritional problems. The disease can affect cognitive and physical development, and in severe cases can be fatal.

As well as the physical symptoms, intestinal worms can decrease people’s quality of life, affecting their employment, education, fertility and happiness. Children may be forced to miss school, damaging their education and development.

1.5 billion
people worldwide are infected with intestinal worms
Children
aged about three to eight are most at risk
600 million
school-age children live in at-risk areas

How are intestinal worms treated?

A hand holds medication used to treat NTDs.

Medication

Intestinal worms are treated with a single dose of medication: either Albendazole® donated by GlaxoSmithKline, or Mebendazole® donated by Johnson and Johnson.

Volunteer community drug distributors are shown how to use measuring sticks to calculate drug dosages.

Volunteers

Medication is distributed to schools and communities. Specially trained school teachers play a key role in distributing and administering these vital treatments.

A close-up of a child washing their hands under a water tap.

Hygiene

Our deworming work also includes educating people about good hygiene. Access to clean water, as well as hygienic behaviour, is vital to stop the disease spreading.

What we’re doing

Sightsavers aims to control intestinal worms in the countries in which we’re running deworming programmes. These countries include Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Guinea.

Intestinal worms can cause symptoms such as anaemia, intestinal obstruction, inflammation of the colon, impaired development, and even death. Our NTD programmes aim to target entire communities of at-risk men, women and children to eliminate these diseases.

In 2020, Sightsavers treated more than four million people for intestinal worms, and trained more than 137,000 local volunteers to distribute medication through mass drug administration to treat a range of neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms. Medication is also distributed in schools, and the disease is frequently treated at the same time as schistosomiasis.

As part of our community and school programmes, we aim to educate local communities about the importance of hygiene to stop the spread of disease. Access to and use of clean water and sanitation, as well as good hygienic practices such as wearing shoes and washing hands, is vital for preventing and controlling the spread of intestinal worms.

A schoolgirl holds a tablet in her hand and smiles.

How we’re making a difference

Charity evaluator GiveWell has named Sightsavers one of its top charities for our work treating intestinal worms.

Read the story

Find out about other diseases we treat

Neglected tropical diseases

More about intestinal worms

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