Providing schoolchildren with anti-malaria drugs once per term improves academic performance while reducing rates of infection and anaemia.
A multi-disciplinary team of Kenyan and British researchers investigated the impact of preventive malaria treatment, a method which involves the mass administration of a full course of an anti-malarial drug irrespective of whether children are infected.
The study was carried out in 30 primary schools in western Kenya on a total 4,916 children aged 5-18 years.
The study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published in Lancet says, the treatment significantly improved academic ability.
Study leader, Dr Matthew Jukes of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says: "Although it has long been suspected that malaria impairs school performance, this is the first study to provide evidence of a direct link between malaria and reduced attention in class. These results indicate that malaria infection may hinder learning and its prevention could be important to enhance the educational potential of schoolchildren."
The next step, the researchers say, will be to investigate further the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of scaling up a preventive treatment package within the context of school health programmes.
Towards this, the country's head of Malaria Control Programme, Dr Willis Akwale said additional studies will be done at the Coast, a malaria endemic zone.
Malaria is a major cause of death in early childhood, but its consequences during the school-age years are less widely acknowledged.
By the time the children go to school they have generally been repeatedly infected with malaria and have acquired immunity. However, malaria still accounts for up to 20 per cent of deaths among schoolchildren.
Many schoolchildren continue to harbour malaria parasites without displaying any symptoms of disease. These asymptomatic infections frequently go unrecognised and untreated, leading to anaemia and impaired performance in school.