Toronto: Educating mothers may be more effective at preventing malaria infection in children than the leading biomedical vaccine against the deadly disease, scientists say.
Researchers, including those from University of Alberta in Canada, tested 647 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between the ages of two months and five years.
They asked the children's parent or guardian fill out a survey related to demographics, socioeconomic status, maternal education, bed net use and recent illness involving fever.
Researchers found that among the participants, the higher a mother's education, the lesser chance of their child being infected with malaria.
"This was not a small effect. Maternal education had an enormous effect - equivalent to or greater than the leading biomedical vaccine against malaria," said Michael Hawkes, assistant professor at the University of Alberta.
Researchers found that 123 out of the 647 children in the study tested positive for malaria. The prevalence of malaria in children of mothers with no education was 30 per cent.
If mothers had received primary education, that rate dipped to 17 per cent while mothers who had received education beyond primary school only had a 15 per cent prevalence of malaria in their young children, researchers said.
"It does not take a lot of education to teach a mom how to take simple precautions to prevent malaria in her child. All it takes is knowing the importance of using a bed net and knowing the importance of seeking care when your child has a fever," said Cary Ma, a medical student at the University of Alberta.
"These are fairly straight forward, simple messages in the context of health and hygiene that can easily be conveyed, usually at an elementary or primary school level," Ma said.
"The World Health Organisation (WHO) is rolling out a new vaccine in countries across Africa that has an efficacy of about 30 per cent," said Hawkes.
"But children whose mothers are educated beyond the primary level have a 53 per cent reduction in their malaria rates. So educating the mom has as a profound effect on childhood malaria as hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a vaccine," he added.
Researchers say their work builds upon previous studies that have shown the importance of maternal education in reducing child mortality and disease in other countries around the world. They believe it is particularly relevant in the DRC - a country beset by war since 1996.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been called the least feasible country for malaria elimination in the world, due to an entrenched malaria ecology and a prolonged military conflict which has severely damaged the nation's health care and educational infrastructure, researchers said.
"In that context, we have got an intervention here, educating the women, that I think no one will disagree with. It is easy and it works," Hawkes said.