guinea-worm-carter-comic-book-horizontal-large-galleryBack 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
Photo: CNN

Guinea Worm
There were only 148 cases of Guinea Worm infestations reported worldwide last year, which is a leap forward compared to the 3.5 million cases less than two decades ago. This disease is known to many as “dracunculiasis” which means, “affliction with little dragons,” due to the pain the worm causes on the skin. Hope remains for the few countries left on the Guinea worm-endemic list as complete eradication of the parasite may come at a faster rate than that of the polio virus.

The number of countries on the Guinea worm endemic list dropped from 21 to four. Ethiopia, Chad, Mali and South Sudan remain on the list, but there are now less than 200 cases compared to the millions that reported in 1986. South Sudan currently has the highest number of cases due to a resurgence that occurred last month when health workers were removed from the main eradication center due to fighting in the villages.

People acquire the worm by drinking contaminated water. When individuals drink the contaminated water, the pathogen enters the body where it remains for almost a month. During this time it matures into a worm that can grow up to 3 feet long. When it is ready, the Guinea worm exits from a blister on the individual’s skin inch by inch.  In most cases, the exiting worm has contact with water, where it releases its larvae and the pathogen is able to spread to several people if they continue to drink from these shallow ponds. This microscopic parasite usually appears in isolated villages marked by these shallow water ponds.

Family economies also suffer as victims are unable to work or farm. The process is painful and as it emerges it cripples a person for several weeks. Young children who acquire the worm also miss school for several weeks.

Wiping out the Guinea worm has been quite the obstacle since there is no vaccine or medicine against the parasite.  Health advocates usually visit various villages to educate families about the dangers of drinking contaminated water. They also explain how the water becomes contaminated when villagers place their infected limbs in shallow water ponds.

So far efforts to eliminate the Guinea Worm have cost around $350 million since 1986. This amount has almost solved the problem, while fighting off polio will cost upwards of $5.5 billion. Health workers note that eradication efforts are low-tech but can be easily implemented since the only strategy is to drink clean water and keep infections monitored. Officials from the Carter Center, the main operation center against Guinea Worm cases, are confident about eliminating the parasite if they continue their same efficient methods.

Maybelline Martez

Sources: NY Times, NPR, Guinea Worms, NPR, Slaying Dragons
Photo: TrialX