Worming Your Way Into Better Health: J&J and Children Without Worms

November 23, 2011

With Thanksgiving approaching, a season of eating and giving in America, it’s not only about the notion of thankfulness, but gratefulness. Did your Granny, like mine, always say to you come Thanksgiving, “Remember that children elsewhere have it worse than you?

Not to open a can of worms, pun intended, but some 800 million children worldwide are today at risk of intestinal worm infection, an often neglected tropical disease called soil-transmitted helminthiasis (STH). If Thanksgiving were to be celebrated at their homes, these worm-infected children likely could not sit at a food-laden table and eat comfortably. 

What, you may ask, possessed me to write about worms and tropical diseases at a time of Thanksgiving when you want to be a part of a happy and fun party table?

Plenty, it turns out. As part of the BCLC’s 2010 Corporate Citizenship Awards, nominee Johnson & Johnson has shown that as part of its larger global commitment to improving maternal and child health around the world, it is continuing its work to help the underserved in developing countries to have worm-free lives. Sounds dirty, nail-grubbing dirty in a way, and therefore I wanted to know more — the scale, the partner points of connection, and the impact on so many lives.

Creating a cohesive corporate social responsibility and sustainability approach and then focusing on health-specific challenges can be a daunting task for companies big and small. And usually the answer is in teamwork and partnering.

Johnson & Johnson partners with the World Health Organization (WHO), an international NGO, as well as working with other governmental and non-governmental agencies, foundations, private companies, and business leaders around the world together to solve pressing social issues. Intestinal worms, usually found in tropical and subtropical areas, are caused by a lack of clean water and sanitation. We in the U.S. are generally free of these conditions, and so are thankfully also worm-free. However, if you had to experience it, then goes something like, “I’m tired.” Or “I don’t feel like eating.” Or “I feel listless.” Intestinal worms are especially harmful to children because they lead to malnutrition, anemia, stunted growth, impaired cognitive development and poor school attendance and performance.

Johnson & Johnson as the makers of a medicine that treats intestinal worms is helping to solve this problem. Help comes in several forms, ranging from medicine to treating outbreaks to preventive education and care against re-infection. Starting out in 2005, Johnson & Johnson partnered with The Task Force for Global Health to form a coalition and create Children Without Worms, the first program to focus solely on global treatment and prevention of STH.

By leveraging joint resources, building this coalition, and forging consensus about how to reach the world’s most at-risk children in very poor areas is a challenging task for a business to undertake. After which, the donations from Johnson & Johnson began in 2007 to Bangladesh, Cameroon, Uganda and Zambia. In 2008, Children Without Worms expanded to eight countries, adding Cambodia, Cape Verde, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Nicaragua. Documents produced by Johnson & Johnson and The Task Force for Global Health, indicate that since 2005 and the ensuing years, that in these countries they have significantly expanded their de-worming outreach, education, and prevention.

The partnership represents the largest health care company donation that targets STH. The pathway to better health in the developing world for many children means being intestinally “worm-free” which is made possible through public-private partnerships programs like Children Without Worms.

Says Michael Bzdak, Director, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson, “Our goals are to help our partners build capacity to measure their ability to define what they’re doing in terms of social impact.” He goes on to share that, “We built the global program on the success of local programs we started more than 10 years ago, where through one of our companies we had already de-wormed about 2 million children in Brazil.”

Despite the recessionary business climate, this past September 8, 2010, Johnson & Johnson announced an expansion of its donation of mebendazole, the medicine for ridding you of intestinal worms. It is remarkable and has the potential to help an entire generation live better lives. Addressing preventable tropical diseases such as STH is a critical component of one of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015.

Says William Lin, Director, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson in his blog post, “It is most exciting because it is the first time in the four years that I have been working on neglected tropical diseases that I am seeing the critical momentum and mass that gives hope that we will be able to achieve the targets set forth for treatment and prevention of intestinal worms that affect hundreds of millions of children around the world.”

According to the UN, “Children Without Worms now treats about 20 million children twice a year with mebendazole throughout Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Johnson & Johnson has made a new commitment to scale up its production over time, quadrupling the current annual donation of mebendazole. It is expected that it will take about two years to materially scale up production and to build partnerships with organizations on the ground to implement the program fully. The commitment aims to distribute mebendazole in 30 to 40 countries by 2015, and includes education to keep children from being re-infected.”

Adds Michael Bzdak, Director, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson “The real key to our mutual success with our partners is our company Credo, which is our compass, our culture, and the fact that as we’re a decentralized company with 250 operating units, it gives us the flexibility on the ground about what we can do.” Johnson & Johnson through Children Without Worms is providing a model of how international businesses, government, and NGOs can come together, partnering to positively affect millions of children globally to live more healthy lives.

No single company can solve STH. However, through partnering and this initiative, Children Without Worms clearly reflects what we talk about a lot in civic service — partnerships, teamwork, longer-term resourcing, capacity-building, education, and a community service strategy aligned to the core products and services of a given company that can and do make a difference.When businesses, nonprofits, and government work together to solve a social and health need in society, then issues such as widespread health epidemics like intestinal worms can be more widely prevented.

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Johnson & Johnson is the world’s largest and most diversified health care manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics, and consumer products, serving patients, consumers and health care professionals in more than 60 countries.  The company’s approximately 114,000 employees at more than 250 Johnson & Johnson companies work with partners in health care to touch the lives of over a billion people every day, throughout the world.