Guinea worm on the brink of eradication, says Carter Center

The end of Guinea worm disease is near. Only 126 cases of the debilitating disease were reported in 2014, says the Carter Center. That is a 15% reduction from the 148 cases in 2013 and a 99% reduction from he 3.5 million cases in 1986. With only a few remaining cases, Guinea worm is poised to join a very short list of diseases eradicated in human history.

Presently, Guinea worm is confined to four countries: South Sudan, Chad, Mali and Ethiopia. In those four countries, the Carter Center says that there are only 30 endemic villages. The organization, founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, is working with the countries to prevent and track cases. Getting across the finish line will require harder work and more money.

“Recognizing that the final cases of any eradication campaign are the most challenging and most expensive to eliminate, the potential for disease eradication to permanently improve quality of life worldwide is tremendous,” said eradication expert Dr. Donald Hopkins, Carter Center vice president for health programs, in a statement.

The announcement came alongside the launch of a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, called “Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease.” The exhibit is a part of a long line of scientific-based exhibitions that stretch back to one on tuberculosis in 1908. Launching today, the new exhibit illustrates the ways in which efforts are underway to eradicate diseases like polio, river blindness, malaria and more. But it is Guinea worm that gets the most attention, featuring images of the disease and the tools used to defeat it. One of which Carter brought onto the Daily Show last night (see top video) – a filtration straw that prevents people from consuming guinea worm eggs.

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Guinea worm infects people through drinking water from stagnant sources, like ponds. The consumed larvae take roughly a year to develop into a two to three foot long worm that is as thick as a spaghetti noodle, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it is grown, the worm will burst through the foot or leg of the person carrying it. It is immensely painful, but immersion in water helps. The problem is that new larvae come out with the worm, contaminating a water source and continuing the presence of Guinea worm.

Disrupting the cycle of infection and transmission is crucial to eradicating Guinea worm. The Carter Center works with international organizations, like the World Health Organization, and governments to support community-based solutions to the problem. Health workers and volunteers help educate communities about ways to prevent getting Guinea worm and it is working. If progress continues, Guinea worm will join smallpox as diseases eradicated.

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“We believe eradication of Guinea worm disease is very possible in the next few years, but success will require the strong commitment and focus of the four remaining endemic countries and the many international partners in this public health initiative,” said President Carter.

He is hopeful that the list of endemic countries will fall to three by the end of the year. Ethiopia had only three reported cases in 2014 and should soon hit zero. Chad is also making good progress. Mali and South Sudan are experiencing challenges due in part to insecurity in the two countries. In Mali, the eradication program operated in only three regions of the country and was ‘slightly operational’ in one region. However, it is South Sudan, where some 70 cases, more than half of the total, were reported. The center says it managed to continue working in the face of the breakout of violence in December 2013. The majority of cases for South Sudan came as the result of an outbreak, but Dr. Hopkins says it is not all bad news.

“We’ve seen similar small outbreaks like this just before the end of transmission in other countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and each of these countries have since successfully wiped out Guinea worm disease,” he said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.