Epidemiology of pharyngitis as reported by Zambian school children and their families: implications for demand-side interventions to prevent rheumatic heart disease

Background: Prompt and appropriate treatment of streptococcal pharyngitis decreases the risk of acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease (RHD). Understanding public perceptions and behaviors related to sore throat is fundamental to inform health programs aimed at eliminating new cases of RHD in endemic regions. We sought to describe the epidemiology of pediatric pharyngitis and its treatment, as reported by children and their parents or guardians in Lusaka, Zambia. Methods: This was a cross-sectional investigation using interviews and written surveys, nested in a school-based RHD prevalence study. Students and their parents were asked to report number of sore throats in the previous 12 months, treatment received, and type and place of treatment. A focused history and physical examination to detect pharyngitis was conducted and children were referred for follow-up as indicated. Results: A total of 3462 students from 47 schools participated in the study, along with their parents or guardians. Six hundred and fifty eight (19%) parents/guardians reported their child had at least one sore throat in the previous year, and 835 (24%) of students reported at least one sore throat in the same time period. Girls were reported to have pharyngitis 50% more often than boys, and also made up two-thirds of the total students treated. Approximately two-thirds of children who had at least one episode of pharyngitis during the previous year were also reported to have received some form of treatment. The majority of treatments were received in government clinics (36.6%) and at home (26.3%). Half of treatments included an antibiotic. Nineteen students (0.5%) had clinically-apparent pharyngitis at screening. Conclusion: Pharyngitis is common among school-aged children and adolescents in Zambia, with females reporting significantly more sore throat episodes than males. Parents/guardians have variable knowledge about the frequency of sore throat in their children, and management of pharyngitis may be suboptimal for many children since more than a quarter were reported to have received treatment without skilled assessment. These results provide insight into current perceptions and practices related to sore throat in Zambia and will be used to design public awareness activities aimed at reducing RHD.