SEATTLE — 2016 marks a remarkable year in the fight against Guinea worm disease. In 1986, there were approximately 3.5 million cases of the disease, per year in Africa and Asia.
However, fast forward to 2015 — there were only 22 cases — an 83 percent reduction from the previous year. So far in 2016, only two new cases have emerged. If this progress continues, Guinea worm (which has no known cure) will be the second disease to ever be eradicated, the first being smallpox in 1980.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dracunculus medinensis, or Guinea worm, is contracted by drinking unfiltered water containing cyclops, or water fleas, who eat guinea worm larvae. Once ingested, the water fleas are dissolved in stomach acids, releasing the larvae who proceed to mate in the body. The males die, but the females thrive, growing within the body and causing extreme pain to the infected person.
This process often lasts for about one year, after which the worm emerges from the skin, usually from the legs or feet. To relieve the burning pain of the sores through which the guinea worm emerges, people often wade in water. In the water, the worm releases hundreds of larvae, who are eaten by the water fleas, starting the process all over again.
Since there is no known cure, former President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center has focused on preventing the guinea worm disease through education. According to Vice News, educational cartoons on posters and in books have proved effective in educating children about guinea worm, especially in earlier years when televisions were rare in poor rural villages. Water filtering straws have been a technological solution also distributed by The Carter Center.
In an interview with NPR, President Carter said that initially, there were 23,600 villages they needed to contact, citing this as the reason for the 30-year-long battle with Guinea worm disease.
Fortunately, once the Guinea worm epidemic is eradicated in a village, it is not possible for the disease to recur unless someone who is infected with the worm were to arrive and wade in the water. The larvae, according to the WHO, can thankfully only live in water for a few days.
President Carter recognizes the need to include communities and empower them to solve health problems like Guinea worm. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, when President Carter spoke to the House of Lords in the U.K., he stated:
“First, we build trust… in the affected people by approaching them with complete respect and recognizing their independence and freedom and their knowledge of their own community is much greater than our knowledge of their communities. We don’t impose our ideas on them but help them solve their own problems, and Guinea worm obviously is recognized by them as a serious problem.”
The U.K.’s Department for International Development has contributed £30 million to the program between 2009 and 2015, including a donation of £4.5 million in February.
Once the disease is eradicated, the Carter Center will implement surveillance efforts and continued education to prevent recurrences. President Carter, age 91, hopes to see the eradication of Guinea worm disease during his lifetime.
– Laura Isaza