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Guinea worm is contracted by drinking contaminated water. The worms grow in the body for about a year and then emerge slowly, for weeks, through painful skin blisters that incapacitate and sometimes cripple their victims.
People infected with Guinea worm spread the disease when they immerse their blisters in water and allow the worm to contaminate it with new larvae, continuing its life cycle.
But Guinea worm has now retreated to only a few African countries, the result of a 22-year eradication campaign led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Atlanta-based Carter Center.
Carter was motivated when he saw its victims in Africa. “It was a horrible disease, almost indescribably bad,” he says. “It was an ancient disease, it didn’t seem to have any solution, and so it was an almost insurmountable problem. That’s why we decided to try to solve it.”
Guinea worm afflicted millions two decades ago, but in 2010 fewer than 2,000 cases were reported – most of them in Sudan.
The director of the Guinea Worm Program at the Carter Center, Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, says, “Sudan is the last big bastion of Guinea worm disease in the world, and therefore is the most important repository of Guinea worm disease anywhere.”
In southern Sudan, health workers from The Carter Center are working with government authorities to attack Guinea worm where it thrives, in poor villages that rely on contaminated water.
Their strategy is the same that they have used everywhere that Guinea worm has been eliminated: public education to prevent contamination of water; supplying millions of water filters; applying safe chemical treatment to water sources; and providing safe water from underground wells.
Villagers say they once believed Guinea worm was caused by witchcraft, or by eating spoiled meat, but now they say they understand the origin of the parasite that has tormented them for thousands of years; communities are now cooperating with health authorities to isolate the disease, breaking the life cycle of the worm and driving it to extinction.
The Director of Health Programs at The Carter Center, Dr. Donald R. Hopkins, says that he is absolutely confident that Guinea worm disease will be eradicated. “The only question is how soon. And we are racing against time in southern Sudan, especially in the fear that there might be some other outbreak of ethnic violence that might complicate things. And I have to emphasize the reason we are working to eradicate this thing in the first place is that if you leave one worm there’s a potential for the entire thing to come back, because one person contaminating a village water supply contaminates for everybody who uses that water supply.”
Nothing less than complete eradication is the goal of The Carter Center and a coalition of governments, international agencies and private donors. If this progress continues, in a few years Guinea worm is likely to make its last stand in southern Sudan.