Ethiopia is launching a national initiative in schools this year to treat children at risk of infection from parasitic worms, mirroring a program in Kenya which has improved child health and school attendance, a charity involved said.

Ethiopia aims to treat at least 80 percent of children at risk from parasitic worms by 2020, Evidence Action said.

The Horn of Africa nation, ravaged by famine in the 1980s, has received international praise for the way it has improved its national health system, notably via community programs.

The country of about 96 million people has more than 10 million children at risk for schistosomiasis, caused by a parasite found in contaminated lakes or other freshwater sites, and 18 million children at risk from soil-transmitted helminths, parasitic worms, the U.S.-based charity said.

Infections can prevent children benefiting from nutrients in their food, leading to anaemia, malnourishment, impaired development and other health problems.

Kenya has a similar program where Evidence Action is working with the Kenyan government. Skills learned there will be leveraged in Ethiopia, the charity said.

In the second phase of the Kenyan program that ended in March 2014, 6.4 million children were treated in more than 15,000 schools in regions facing the highest risk.

The Kenyan program has helped cut school absenteeism by about 25 percent at a cost of about $3 million a year, in addition to drugs donated by pharmaceutical firms, Evidence Action said.

Schools offer an effective medium to distribute the drugs as they can be administered by teachers after some simple training, the charity said. Most children receive one tablet a year.

"School-based deworming would not have been an option 20 years ago when enrolment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa were much lower," said Katrin Verclas at Evidence Action, speaking about the Kenyan project in Nairobi last year.

Enrolment has since risen across the continent. In Kenya, it climbed when free primary education was introduced in 2003, which pushed enrolment up from about 60 percent to more than 80 percent by 2009. Rural school teachers say free deworming treatment has helped improve enrolment further in their areas.

Ethiopia’s deworming program will use funding from a range of sources, including the government, private donors, the health-focused charity the END Fund and the British government's Department for International Development.

The Kenyan project also has backing from the END Fund, as well as from the Children's Investment Fund Foundation charity.