What links Parasitology with the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics?

In October 2019, I caught myself particularly proud of being a parasitologist, in the midst of a Master’s class on Development Economics at the Paris School of International Affairs.

The 2019 laureates for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences had just been announced and our lecturer thought of dedicating part of the class to illustrate the unicity and pioneering nature of their work. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael Kremer from Harvard University, were awarded “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Profs Banerjee and Duflo have indeed the merit of having revolutionised the discipline of development economics, ‘borrowing’ the practice of ‘Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs)’ from the field of medicine and epidemiology, and introducing the notions of ‘treated’ (i.e. benefitting from an ‘intervention’) and ‘control’ (i.e. with no intervention) groups in study designs. Such an approach was chosen to reduce study biases and provide a more realistic appraisal of the economic impact of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty. In the late-1990s, Prof Kremer and colleagues applied the method of RCTs to assess the short-term and long-term effects of a range of ‘deworming’ treatments tackling soil-transmitted helminths (i.e. roundworms, hookworms and whipworms) and schistosomes in primary school children in Busia, Western Kenya. Through their studies, Kremer et al. were able to elegantly demonstrate that deworming not only yielded improved health outcomes and school attendance in the short-term, but also was linked to positive long-term results (better educational attainment and business opportunities, 10 years after treatment), in treated compared to untreated children. Importantly, Kremer et al. were able to record also positive effects (‘externalities’) brought by anthelmintics in untreated school children living in the proximity of treated ones, with special regards to roundworm, hookworm and whipworm infections, due to a reduction of parasitic burdens in the surroundings. According to Kremer and colleagues, these externalities were large enough to justify the subsidising of mass drug administration programmes. Parasites were indeed ‘all over the place’ in Prof Kremer’s and colleagues’ work. These scholars’ effort, as well as their well-deserved award, clearly shows the immense significance, both economically and socially, that (studying and) controlling parasites can ultimately have. Without any expertise and advice with regards to the treatment, monitoring and evaluation protocols (entailing numerous coprological examinations!), Kremer et al.’s economic assessments would have not been possible.

I inevitably left my Development Economics’ class with an enhanced enthusiasm, eagerness to do and awareness of the great impact that our profession can have, across disciplines and geographies. The inspiring and trend-setting work led by Profs Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer shows that even an ‘old-fashioned’ procedure such as a faecal floatation or sedimentation can be instrumental to the improvement of people’s well-being and livelihood across the globe. Because, yes, parasites matter.

This excerpt was taken from the ‘first episode’ of the brand-new section ‘Because Parasites MatterStories of parasitism in a globalised world’, featured on the November 2020 Newsletter of the World Association for the Advancement of Veterinary Parasitology (WAAVP).

The announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in Stockholm.

© Karin Wesslen | TT News Agency | Reuters

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