How The END Fund is creating a healthier, more prosperous future, free of intestinal worms

The END Fund
The END Fund
Carol Karutu
by Carol Karutu
16 June 2023
For five years now, Virgin Unite has been proud to partner with The END Fund and support its bold plan to disrupt worms’ hold on families, communities, and economies.

Intestinal worm infections are a type of neglected tropical disease (NTD) and a global public health threat, affecting nearly a fifth of the world’s population. They cause unnecessary pain, steal nutrients and stunt both physical and cognitive growth in children – preventing them from reaching their full potential. The END Fund, along with its partners, is taking on the challenge of eliminating intestinal worms.

The END Fund joined an Audacious Ideas gathering on Necker Island in 2018. Since then, with support from Virgin Unite’s incredible partners, it has helped to distribute more than 150 million treatments – reaching 50 million people last year alone.

This success story is one of many that have stemmed from the incredible Audacious Project – which Virgin Unite helped to incubate , hosted the initial gatherings on Moskito and Necker Island, and worked in partnership with Chris Anderson Skoll, ELMA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Scott Cook & Signe Ostby and more.

The END Fund
The END Fund

We caught up with the END Fund’s Carol Karutu, Vice President of Programmes, to find out what’s being done to address intestinal worm infections.

What are intestinal worms and how big of a problem are they?

Intestinal worms are tiny parasites that live in the soil. Once they are inside a person, they can reproduce and grow to be the size of a common earthworm. Areas with limited access to clean water or safe ways to dispose of human waste are at a high risk of intestinal worms. If left untreated, these worms continue to live inside a person’s intestinal system, feeding on their tissue and resulting in depleted iron levels and protein deficiency.

The body responds to the intestinal worm infection with inflammation that causes a lack of appetite, hampers nutrient absorption and storage, and diverts valuable nutrients and energy. The compounding effect on children is particularly devastating, as they are deprived of nutrition they need for their growth and development. A Nobel Prize winning study looked at this problem and found that the effects on children are so large that if a child receives medicine for deworming, they will miss less school and even earn more money as an adult. There are still roughly 1.7 billion people in the world who still require regular treatment for these parasites.

The END Fund
The END Fund

Why hasn’t this global issue been solved yet?

Distribution of medication through mass drug administration (MDA) programmes is a key component of the World Health Organization’s control plans for intestinal worms. This strategy aims to treat all people at the highest risk of this disease in an area at one time. It is extremely cost effective, at less than US $0.50 per person and helps reduce the prevalence of the disease all at once.

Despite reduced suffering for millions of people and increases in medication coverage, administering MDAs is complex and requires a significant amount of logistical work – and there are communities at risk of infection that we have yet to reach. In addition, the underlying problems that cause infection such as lack of access to water and hygiene systems means that re-infection rates are high. MDAs will help to keep rates of intestinal worms low, but without a comprehensive approach, these parasites will remain a problem.

What is the END Fund doing differently?

In 2019, the END Fund created the Deworming Innovation Fund, joining like-minded activist-philanthropists – including Virgin Unite – to accelerate progress towards eliminating intestinal worms and schistosomiasis in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Kenya. This program is taking a holistic look at the problem, supporting programs to improve education about hygiene. Crucially, the Deworming Innovation Fund expanded MDAs to treat everyone in an area at risk.

Historically, programs to control intestinal worms have focused on treating children due to the significant burden in this age group. However, if only children are treated, they will go home to an environment where the worms are still present and will continue to be infected. Only by treating everyone at risk within a community can the transmission of the parasites be interrupted.

The END Fund
The END Fund

As part of this program, the END Fund, together with partners like Virgin Unite, have helped distribute over 150 million treatments, reaching 50 million people in 2022 alone. By 2025, we will continue to support and amplify commitments made by local leaders and aim to ensure that everyone who needs treatment receives it.

This isn’t just about eliminating disease. It’s a social investment in the future of our global society to improve the health, quality of life and the educational and economic prospects of people living in these countries.

What motivates you to do this work?

I love the work we do because our efforts can have a significant global impact and we can help millions live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Funding NTD treatments is one of the most cost-effective social investments, and even a modest investment in deworming for children generates a return of 82% per year through higher earnings. Ending intestinal worms would remove a large barrier to economic growth in communities across Africa.

It’s gratifying to come together with others to pool our collective will power and resources to take on the challenge of intestinal worms and see how our efforts are helping us achieve our vision of ensuring those at risk can live healthy and prosperous lives.

How can someone get involved to help end NTDs like intestinal worms? 

I hope that understanding the challenge before us makes us think about how we can do more to unlock the incredible potential of communities affected by intestinal worms. We all have so much to gain when people everywhere can thrive. This is a challenge we cannot overcome on our own, and I encourage anyone interested in helping to connect with the END Fund and consider donating, subscribing and educating others about this issue.

Visit the Deworming Innovation Fund to learn more about this important work and visit The Audacious Project to learn more the 2023 projects.