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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.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.