Jimmy Carter, Guinea Worm, and Human Disease Eradication
February 17th, 2023 by INMED
Last week, Jimmy Carter – 39th US President 1977-1981 – entered hospice care at age 98. Post-presidency, Carter focused his energies on distinguished humanitarian pursuits: launching Habitat for Humanity, negotiating cessation of international conflicts, instructing biblical truths, and leading the march to eradicate a human infection.
Dracunculiasis, or Guinea worm infection, is a parasitic disease acquired by humans who drink water contaminated with its eggs. Within the human intestine, these eggs develop into adult worms about 1 m (3 feet!) long that penetrate the intestine and begin migrating through the body until they reach the skin. Once the parasite detects water nearby, it begins to emerge through the skin inflicting unrelenting, debilitating pain upon the sufferer.
No successful medication, vaccine, or other treatment has been discovered. Management of this disease remains the same as it has for millennia: raping the emerging worm on a stick and slowly extracted over a period of weeks.
In the 1980s, about 3.5 million new cases were reported in eastern, central, and western Africa – primarily in the countries of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Angola, Mali, Chad, and Cameron. It occurs mainly within very low-income communities where water and sanitation infrastructure are undeveloped.
In 1986, a coalition of international partners, including the World Health Organization and the Carter Center, began a systematic program to both track the occurrences of the disease and educate communities regarding prevention. Effective prevention efforts include provision of safe drinking water, application of approved chemical agents to kill the parasite in contaminated water, and educating Community members to properly dispose of fish guts which breaks transmission of the parasite eggs.
So successful has been these efforts worldwide trust 25 cases were reported in 2016 and only 10 cases in 2021. Successful eradication of Guinea worm would be only the second time in history – following smallpox eradication – that a human infection has been entirely eliminated. A distinguished pursuit indeed!