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PhD student to help Chinese students thrive

A PhD student from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane is using science and education to make a real difference to the children of rural China.

Franziska Bieri is travelling to the Chinese province of Hunan to teach local children how to avoid contracting intestinal worms, such as whipworm, hookworm and roundworm. Infection with these worms in children leads to malnutrition, stunted growth and development.

The 30 year old is excited about the project, which will form the basis of her 3-year PhD thesis.

“I’ve always been intrigued by health issues in developing countries. It’s so motivating to know that you can make a big difference to someone’s life.”

“Sometimes it only takes a simple change in behaviour and attitudes to make a drastic difference in disease prevalence,” said Franziska.

The aim of the project is to create an entertaining cartoon DVD to educate the schoolchildren about the importance of wearing shoes, washing their hands, boiling water for drinking and using lavatories instead of the local river.

“A cure for these worms is accessible and fairly cheap, but the problem is that as soon as they are cured, they immediately become reinfected because of their poor hygiene habits.”

Two to four thousand children between 9 and 11 years old will be used in the study. Franziska and her collaborators will study children from remote villages in the hills of Hunan province in southeast China, where intestinal worms are endemic.

“The children will be tested for worm infections and those infected will be offered treatment. We will assess the children’s knowledge, before and after viewing the DVD and compare the effectiveness of the DVD against traditional textbooks.

“We will also compare frequency of worm reinfection between the children traditionally instructed and those taught with the DVD.”

Scientists and Chinese health officials will monitor the children’s behaviour, watching for changes that will prevent them from becoming reinfected with the worms.

“We will be observing them to see whether they use lavatories, avoid using night soil on vegetable gardens, wear shoes, wash their hands, boil the water they drink, and wash fruits and vegetables before eating.”

Franziska will be visiting the Dongting Lake area near Yueyang from 16 October until 14 November to gain a first overview on schoolchildren’s knowledge and habits regarding intestinal worms.

QIMR does extensive research into most forms of parasites including liver flukes, blood flukes, scabies, malarial parasites, hookworm, threadworm, hydatid tapeworms and other gut parasites.