BACKGROUND: School-aged children are rarely targeted by malaria control programmes, yet the prevalence of Plasmodium infection in primary school children often exceeds that seen in younger children and could affect haemoglobin concentration and school performance.
METHODS: A cluster-randomised trial was carried out in 80 primary schools in southern Mali to evaluate the impact of a school-based malaria intervention package. Intervention schools received two interventions sequentially: (1) teacher-led participatory malaria prevention education, combined with distribution of long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs), followed 7 months later at the end of the transmission season by (2) mass delivery of artesunate and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine administered by teachers, termed intermittent parasite clearance in schools (IPCs). Control schools received LLINs as part of the national universal net distribution programme. The impact of the interventions on malaria and anaemia was evaluated over 20 months using cross-sectional surveys in a random subset of 38 schools(all classes), with a range of cognitive measures (sustained attention, visual search, numeracy, vocabulary and writing) assessed in a longitudinal cohort of children aged 9-12 years in all 80 schools.
RESULTS: Delivery of a single round of IPCs was associated with dramatic reductions in malaria parasitaemia (OR 0.005, 95% CI 0.002 to 0.011, p<0.001) and gametocyte carriage (OR 0.02, 95% CI 0.00 to 0.17, p<0.001) in intervention compared with control schools. This effect was sustained for 6 months until the beginning of the next transmission season. IPCs was also associated with a significant decrease in anaemia (OR 0.56, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.78, p=0.001), and increase in sustained attention (difference +0.23, 95% CI 0.10 to 0.36, p<0.001). There was no evidence of impact on other cognitive measures.
CONCLUSION: The combination of malaria prevention education, LLINs and IPCs can reduce anaemia and improve sustained attention of school children in areas of highly seasonal transmission. These findings highlight the impact of asymptomatic malaria infection on cognitive performance in schoolchildren and the benefit of IPCs in reducing this burden. Additionally, malaria control in schools can help diminish the infectious reservoir that sustains Plasmodium transmission.