Back in 1999, Nigerian farmer Abdullahi Rabiu faced an agonizing reality. An estimated 84 worms, narrow in form and each of them two to three feet in length, had painfully ruptured through his skin. And there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Rabiu, who eventually recovered from the ordeal, contracted a waterborne parasitic disease called Guinea Worms by drinking contaminated pond water.
It’s a cycle: an infected person seeks relief from the painful rupturing of the worms by entering the water. There, the worms release hundreds of thousands of larvae. The larvae are then eaten by tiny water flies barely visible to the human eye. Finally, people who drink from that pond run the risk of consuming the flies and becoming infected with the worm.
In 1986, an estimated 3.5 million cases of guinea worm were reported across 21 countries in Africa and Asia. Since then, the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, has led an international campaign to eradicate the disease.
And they are winning.
After visiting more than 26,300 villages, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and training people in health education, the eradication of the guinea worm is not only possible — it’s in sight. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year, only 15 cases were reported across four countries.
“The potential for disease eradication to permanently improve quality of life worldwide is tremendous,” said Dr. Donald Hopkins, vice president for Carter Center health programs. Once a disease that incapacitates people like Rabiu is eradicated, the health of individuals improve and economies benefit from increased productivity.
Eradication of the guinea worm would make it the first human disease to have been wiped out since smallpox in 1980. It stands to be the first disease to be eliminated without a vaccine or medicine.
In the case of guinea worms, the key was as simple as education. People in these communities have learned to filter water, making it safe for drinking. Those who have become infected know not to enter the water.
While it is impossible to predict exactly when guinea worms will be completely eradicated, there is hope to see it gone in the next two to three years at the latest.
Now facing terminal cancer, Jimmy Carter was recently asked what he would like to accomplish before dying. His response: “I would like the last guinea worm to die before I do.”
– Kara Buckley
Sources: The Carter Center 1, BBC 1, BBC 2, The Carter Center 2, The Carter Center 3