Disease in South Sudan

South Sudan is the youngest country in the world and with this has come significant growing pains. Despite the ongoing civil war, the alleviation of disease in South Sudan is quickly becoming one of its positive developments. The most recent example was the announcement of the eradication of the guinea worm within the country’s borders.

What is the Guinea Worm and Who Does it Affect?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), guinea worm disease only affects the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population. Specifically, it occurs in people who do not have access to clean water or health care.

The disease takes hold when the worms swim around stagnant ponds and find their way into people who drink water from contaminated ponds. The disease takes a year to manifest, and once it shows, patients have severe flu-like symptoms and blisters that cause intense pain and disability. The most efficient way for subjects to relieve the pain is to dunk the affected area, almost always the foot or leg, into water. In the water, the worms spawn thousands of larvae, thus restarting the cycle.

Eradication of the Disease in South Sudan

Dr. Riek Gai Kok, South Sudan’s health minister, announced the end of the guinea worm disease in South Sudan at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the end of March. The Carter Center, a philanthropic organization started by former president Jimmy Carter, has provided much assistance to the world’s youngest nation.

In efforts to help eradicate guinea worm, the Carter Center has distributed a pesticide to one volunteer in each Sudanese village affected by the parasitic worm. The volunteer then pours the pesticide into all the ponds in and around their town.

It has been 15 months since the last case of guinea worm disease in South Sudan, longer than the incubation period for the worm, but still short of the three year period required by the World Health Organization to officially declare the guinea worm extinct in the area. Still, Dr. Kok thanked the organization and the thousands of volunteers it trained.

This year will be an important one to identify the benefits of eliminating the disease in South Sudan. Most cases appear in July, which is a crucial time for the agrarian population in the country, and the worm can cripple entire villages.

Why Eradication is Important

Even though guinea worm disease seldom ends in death, the disease is still debilitating. It handicaps its victims on average for around two months, but sometimes the incapacitation is permanent. More than 90 percent of South Sudanese citizens depend on labor occupations like fishing, herding or farming for sustenance and employment. So, when disability removes the victim from the workforce, there are devastating results.

To compound this, a workforce shortage resulting from the mass exodus during the civil war forced children into the fields. According to the CDC’s statistics, in villages where guinea worm disease is most prevalent, over 60 percent of children miss school.

This is the main reason why eliminating guinea worm disease in South Sudan is so important. The connection between the disease and poverty is circular. While the illness is a result of living in destitute conditions, it also is a significant cause of poverty when it keeps its victims and their families from completing their jobs or from going to school.

As a result, government officials are pleased about eradicating the disease in South Sudan because it is a boon to their public health system and long-term economy. Furthermore, in one of the most food insecure countries, the ability to have an entire harvesting season unabated by a preventable disease could be a major step toward ending famine and alleviating poverty in South Sudan.

– David Jaques

Photo: Flickr