School health programmes should be introduced and implemented to maximise success rates in the education systems in Africa.
Oladapo Walker, leader of the inter-country support team for Eastern and Southern Africa in the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently told educationists from Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, who were gathered in Harare to map up strategies on how school health programmes can be implemented.
He said governments should begin to bear the burden of feeding children at schools to enhance their concentration in class.
“I am looking forward to seeing school health feeding programmes because children like food and if you take a hungry child to class, they will not remember anything,” said Walker. “Immunisation should also come to the children almost free.”
He added that if African governments crafted policies around school health feeding and free immunisation and health care for children, it would reduce absenteeism and illness.
Davison Munodawafa the programme manager for the Social and Economic Determinant on Health in the Health Promotion cluster of WHO in the African Regional office of Brazzaville in Congo said children at schools were not only affected by health issues such as HIV and Aids.
He said WHO was now looking at ways to tackle other health issues that might bedevil schoolchildren like nutrition, infectious diseases, as well as violence.
“We have looked at issues like the absence of a voice to speak for young people in schools. Young people are part of development and we should be able to illustrate that by showing that education without health will not lead to development, but education plus health will lead to development,” he said.
“For example, the average age when people die of HIV and Aids is 22 years and it means those people would have gone through school and by that time they should be productive. However, they die but we strongly believe the school setting should provide several opportunities that allow children to learn new things as well as an opportunity to deliver accurate health information to children.”
Munodawafa said schools were capable of linking with the community because what was learnt in schools could cascade to the community, and communities can also make recommendations on what should happen in schools.
“We should incorporate health issues because if a child spends a lot of time at school and they do not get valuable information about health issues, there is nowhere else they would get such information,” he said.
Munodawafa said teachers’ unions and the responsible ministries of health and education, as well as civic groups and developmental partners should begin to debate about existing and non-existing health issues at schools and begin to implement what is missing at country level.
“WHO needs to work together with these groups to facilitate the formation of a national school health association, whose mandate would be to bring its voice into an arena where these issues can be debated by government and parliament,” Munodawafa said.
He said an African network on school health was needed so that rights and interests of school children were protected.
“We believe that countries should be at liberty to identify their priority concerns because one country may decide that school feeding programmes are their priority, while others may decide immunisation is more important.”
However, he said, in implementing these programmes the national or regional associations promoting them should ensure the issue of equality was considered.
“We need to promote equality because we would like to make sure these services are also available to those underprivileged children. We do not want to see school health services only being implemented at schools where the rich are and this is one of the challenges we have. Those rich schools have clean water, toilets and everything and so we are saying these associations should look into the issue of equitable distribution,” he said.
Munodawafa said if school health programmes were implemented, schoolchildren would be more attentive in class and have a higher success rate.
“With regards to HIV and Aids, one of the challenges we experienced at schools was that teachers had difficulties in teaching the subject. HIV and Aids is a very sensitive subject and brings a lot of controversy, for example, discussions around the issue of condoms because some of the parents will not be happy if their children speak of these things,” he said.
He said Africa faced a double burden in terms of nutrition with regards to the health of children because some children suffered from under-nutrition while others suffered from over-nutrition, which results in obesity.
He said parliament and government had a pivotal role to play in policy making because most billboards advertising beer or tobacco were mounted near schools and this posed a serious health threat to school children as the tobacco or beer industry would be looking for new smokers or drinkers. Violence, Munodawafa said, also posed serious threats.