Three died
September 19, 2007, 7:31 pm
Filed under: africa, development, england, events, london, news, poverty, science, society

Karimba Primary School, by AP6.

Last week I was in London to report on the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s centenary conference, called, ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals’.

Professor Estambale from the University of Nairobi talked about whether preventing malaria in schoolchildren helped them learn better (you can read my story on it here).

He talked about the design of the study and his results. In explaining his figures for why not all the children recruited to receive treatment were tested afterwards, he said matter-of-factly, “three of them died”, and continued to explain why other children were not in the final figures.

I had one of those stop-life moments. Three of them died! Here was a man in London explaining his scientific results, just like so many other scientists, but he had to factor in that some of his study participants died. And this was in the group that received treatment! There were more in the placebo group. The deaths weren’t anything to do with his study – it’s just that in Africa, children die, for all sorts of reasons.

Of course we all know that children in Africa die all the time, but it was one of those moments that brought it home to me. I imagine all of the people I know working in science in developed countries who design studies, worrying about so many different factors, trying to recruit enough volunteers – imagine if some of them just died? Halfway through your study, they die for completely unrelated reasons, which you then factor into your results.

I guess it was also shocking because I associate African children dying as flyblown toddlers suffering from malnutrition, not school-age children, ready to sit tests at the end of the term so they can move on in life. I’ve never been a starving toddler (good work mum), but I have been a primary school kid cruising along through childhood, like the kids in the study.

It’s unimaginable that school kids could ever just die matter-of-factly in Western Europe. Needless to say, we have to stop it happening in other parts of the world.


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