Nigeria’s last case of guinea worm

Guinea worm emerging, Nigeria 2001

It’s hard for many of us, living inside the safe and comfortable bubble of existence offered by western civilization, to understand just how disruptive, tragic and dangerous it can be to simply get sick in a poor, rural African village.

It’s probably even harder to imagine living with the threat of a three-foot long worm eating its way through your body and then painfully emerging over a period of weeks as you sit — or lay, or writhe — there waiting for the “fiery serpent” or “little dragon” to be done with you.

Nigeria used to be planet-central for guinea worm, with hundreds of thousands of known cases every year (and probably many more unknown cases). This parasitic disease was painfully crippling farming communities, throwing people into poverty.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

Nigerian woman undergoing guinea worm extraction

Thanks to decades of effort by the Carter Center, working in collaboration with many other organizations and given financial support by donors (including $93.5 million from the Gates Foundation), Nigerians no longer have to fear this threat.

Once afflicting millions worldwide, including the Middle East and the Soviet Union, guinea worm has been fought into just a few isolated corners of the world. There are less than two thousand cases, in four African countries, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad.

Last night, at the U.W., some of us got a sneak preview of  a documentary film, “Foul Water: Fiery Serpent.” It describes the Carter Center’s ongoing effort to repeat this success story in Sudan — and also make guinea worm only the second human disease (after smallpox) to be eradicated from Earth.

I was in Nigeria last spring (doing research for a book on global health I keep threatening to write). I visited with Carter Center folks and also met Grace Otubo, then a sturdy 79-year-old woman and migrant farmer, in the eastern Nigerian village of Ezza Nwukbor.

Grace was Nigeria’s last known case of guinea worm.

Here’s my (very amateurish, sorry) video of the visit.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Eric Westby

    Powerful stuff — I had no idea this was on the verge of being eliminated. I wish the major media were doing a better job covering this sort of public health advancement, rather than spending all their international resources covering politics and coups.

    • Thanks Eric,
      When I first covered guinea worm some 10 years ago, it seemed almost unheard of outside of public health circles. In the last year or so, the major media have done some big stories on this — NPR, PRI, PBS Newshour and the New York Times. So it is getting more attention lately, and I’m sure will get even more when they come closer to achieving eradication.
      Cheers!

  • Youngran_yang

    Thanks Tom for letting me be aware of this fantastic news happened in Nigeria. As a person who passionated in global public health, I do hope this woderful eradication achieved in other countires too. It’s grateful that any Nigerian no longer will be threathend by this scaring worm (even it’s hard to look at those pictures and imagine their pain..). I do hope through your deep critical insight, other more significant issues discovered and exposed to the world and a great deal of funds allocated into right place. Thanks,

    • Your thanks are appreciated but should be directed to the amazing folks at the Carter Center who have worked tirelessly at this for decades (and still are working at it, in Sudan and elsewhere).
      Best
      Tom