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In China, Stanford researchers seek to eradicate intestinal worms that afflict rural children

Anna Cobb Map of China highlighting Guizhou, Gansu and Ningxia provinces

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Our series: Stanford's Rural Education Action Project in China

China is the world's fastest-growing and second-largest economy, but it's the country's poverty that keeps Scott Rozelle coming back. As co-director of Stanford's Rural Education Action Project, Rozelle is looking for ways to give those struggling in the country's most remote areas the chance to make a living in the booming cities. REAP is one of many programs that has benefited over the last four years from The Stanford Challenge, a fundraising campaign dedicated to supporting people and programs seeking solutions to global problems.

For the past three summers, Rozelle has led what he calls a "mobile board meeting" of REAP's researchers, collaborators and donors who get a chance to review some of the group's projects and think up new ones. This year, the entourage focuses on REAP's work to eradicate childhood anemia and intestinal worms, and introduce computer-assisted learning in schools.

The field trip covers some of the country's poorest areas in the Guizhou, Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Adam Gorlick of the Stanford News Service traveled with the group and reports on their experiences.

Adam Gorlick Linxiu Zhang, REAP's co-director, left, talks with Li Qunyan, center, who lives in a rural village of about 2,000 people in Guizhou Province.

Linxiu Zhang, REAP's co-director, left, talks with Li Qunyan, center, who lives in a rural village of about 2,000 people in Guizhou Province. Her 5-year-old son, right, was diagnosed with intestinal worms during a survey conducted by REAP researchers last year.

Part 1: Taking first steps toward fighting a pervasive parasite 

ZHIJIN, CHINA – The road into Zhijin County twists through steep, rounded mountains towering over terraced fields of corn, potatoes and rice in China's southwestern province of Guizhou.

The road itself is relatively new. Likely built within the past decade, it's part of the government's efforts to invest in rural infrastructure – a plan meant to lift the most remote parts of China from poverty and help move its youngest generations from the countryside into the cities that are fueling this nation's economic boom.

Just over half of China's population now lives in rural areas. But if the country's growth continues at its current rate, almost 85 percent of its people will be living in cities by 2030. And only 5 percent will be working in agriculture.

"Hopefully, nobody is living here in 40 years," Scott Rozelle said as a bus carrying him and about 20 people affiliated with Stanford's Rural Education Action Project winds along the lush limestone mountains toward Zhijin. "There might be a bed-and-breakfast or two, but the idea is that the kids living here now won't be around to plant this land."

But making sure the kids find economic success in the cities will take more than building a road that leads them there. Without a decent education, they don't stand a chance at competing in the bustle of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. And without good health and nutrition, they're at risk of falling even further behind.

Research conducted by REAP in Guizhou Province and neighboring Sichuan shows that about 35 percent of children in these poor provinces are suffering from intestinal worms. That number shoots up to 80 percent in some of Guizhou's villages.

Chinese officials called REAP's findings "shocking" when they received the data in December. Days later, the government earmarked about $10 million for China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to design a worm eradication project.

Rozelle has been interested in China since he learned the language as a child. He and and the REAP team are working with the CDC to evaluate the best way to fight worm infestations.

After meeting with CDC officials in Shanghai, the group made the 12-hour trip by plane and bus to Zhijin. The county seat is a small city where a hospital doctor who met with the researchers made the horribly wrong guess that only 1 percent of the county's children have intestinal worms and a local mayor said there's no government mandate – and therefore no real stimulus – to fight worms.

Next, the team will fan out to neighboring villages to interview parents and children who participated in last year's study. Hearing their stories will give the researchers a better idea of how to design the tests needed to determine the most effective way to fight the infections and ensure that rural children will have a good shot at making it in the cities that Rozelle – and China's future – are pushing them toward.