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Nigerians Turn to Carter Center to Fight Water-Borne Disease

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is known in Nigeria as the architect of a sustained campaign to rid the country of Guinea worm disease. Guinea worm is a water-borne worm infection that is contracted when people drink water containing the worm's tiny eggs. Gilbert da Costa reports that with Nigeria on the verge of conquering Guinea worm, Mr. Carter's organization, the Carter Center, is now focusing on eradicating schistosomiasis, another debilitating water-borne disease in Nigeria.

Nasarawa, a small, dusty community of about 15,000 residents, most of whom are farmers, is about 100 kilometers from the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Thursday was a big day for this rural community as they converged at the local primary school grounds, amidst drumming and dancing.

The villagers were clearly enthusiastic to receive drug treatment for schistosomiasis. Schistosomiasis is a parasitic infection contracted when a person's skin comes in contact with water containing certain types of snails that carry the parasite. The debilitating disease leads to poor growth and impaired learning.

Some 100 meters behind the school is the village's main source of water, a shallow and slow moving river. The river remains a major attraction in Nasarawa and hosts a variety of activities, from young boys enjoying a swim, to women out washing and even young girls fetching drinking water.

It is also responsible for most of the impoverished village's health problems. Dr. Emmanuel Miri, of the Carter Center in Abuja, explains.

"During the dry season, the level of water is going [down]. When it begins to stagnate, into smaller, smaller portions that is when it is most ideal for the snail to thrive," he said. "The snail thrives when a child has blood in his urine and urinates in the water as they are bathing, the eggs in that urine is taken by the snail. It remains in the urine for about 40 days and at the end of which a worm emerges. That worm is the one that causes the problem anybody passing through that water; it will just penetrate through the skin. And once it penetrates the skin, it goes into the bladder or intestines."

Dr. Miri says schistosomiasis has become endemic and requires urgent attention. He says the Carter Center hopes to raise funds to make the miracle drug, known as praziquental, more accessible in the rural and impoverished community.

"Every 10 child[ren] you pick from this school, six of them have the disease," he added. "The drug we are using for the treatment, praziquental, is not donated by any company. Praziquental is expensive and there are no donors. And we are hoping that after this clip [Africa tour], he [Mr. Carter] will be able to use it to source for funding for this drug."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has long campaigned for the eradication of Guinea worm in Nigeria. Once the most endemic Guinea worm country in the world, Nigeria reported only 16 cases in 2006. Speaking in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, the delighted former president announced Nigeria is expected to end transmission in 2007.

"The first disease that we tackled in Nigeria was Guinea worm," said Mr. Carter. "At that time, more than 650,000 people suffered this terrible disease of Guinea worm and last year, with the inspired leadership of your health minister and others, we only found 16 cases in the whole country. And my prediction is that next year, you will see the last case of Guinea worm in Nigeria."

Despite surging oil revenues, Nigeria's health system is critically underfunded and relies heavily on external support.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, also has one of the highest burdens of disease.