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Parasitic Disease Heads Toward Extinction

Smallpox was the first infectious disease ever to be eradicated worldwide. But now, thanks to a two-decade campaign, guinea worm disease is about to be eradicated as well. Unlike smallpox, guinea worm disease is being eradicated without drug therapy or a vaccine. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

Twenty years ago, 3.5 million people in developing countries in Africa and Asia had guinea worm disease. The parasitic infection comes from a worm that can grow up to a meter long before it breaks out of a person's body. The worm emerges when it is ready to produce larvae. It is painful. And it can be crippling. In 1986, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter got involved.

"I became obsessed, almost, with the prospect that the Carter Center could help in eradicating the disease," says Carter.

The Carter Center led the campaign in its work with the United Nations, heads of state, major corporations, philanthropists and, most importantly, people who lived in some 23,000 rural villages in 22 countries.

"So our task was to go to every one of these villages on earth, and to teach people what caused guinea worm and then to teach them how to avoid having this terrible disease," Carter adds.

Guinea worm disease is caused by drinking water contaminated by guinea worm larvae and the tiny fleas that swallow the larvae. Once in a person's body, the larvae grow, mature and mate. The males die off, but the females grow until they are ready to spawn.

When the guinea worms break through the skin, relief comes from plunging that part of the body into water. Then the female expels her larvae into the water and cycle continues.

Dr. Donald Hopkins with the Carter Center says the disease has wide-ranging effects.

"It's very painful,” says Hopkins. “Very long. It takes several weeks to two or three months for the worms to come out, and so people are crippled. Children can't walk to school. Farmers can't farm. Parent's can't take care of their toddlers."

To prevent this disease, villagers have learned not to contaminate ponds by jumping into them when guinea worms are coming out of their bodies. They have learned how to filter their water through a finely woven cloth that prevents tiny fleas and guinea worm larvae from passing through. Some villagers have opted to treat their ponds with an insecticide. In other villages, people now get their drinking water from wells.

Dr. Hopkins says besides the physical health benefits, the eradication program has a powerful psychological impact as well.

"They will see that this disease they they've known for generations in their areas has been eliminated by collaborative effort of themselves and a little help from the outside,” explains Hopkins. “That's important for them, and they will never go back to thinking the same way."

Where the parasite has been eradicated, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine cites increased agricultural productivity, increased employment and a drop in school absenteeism.

Guinea worm disease now exists only in parts of nine African countries. The Carter Center estimates that the disease will be completely eradicated by 2009.

Video provided by The Carter Center.