Many in Africa continue to suffer from illnesses called neglected tropical diseases. They receive too little funding for treatment and eradication because, unlike HIV/AIDS and others, they cause a great deal of damage but do not kill. One such disease, Guinea worm, is being targeted for eradication by the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Donald Hopkins is the vice president of the Carter Center in charge of health programs. In this fourth of a five-part series on neglected diseases in Africa, Voice of America’s Cole Mallard spoke with him at a recent conference in Washington, DC, on Global Health in the 21st Century.
Dr. Hopkins said the initiative began in 1980 at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and the Carter Center became involved in 1986.
The initiative on guinea worm began with the government of Pakistan. Then the Carter Center collaborated with the governments of Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. Dr. Hopkins says since then, the Center has worked with all the affected African countries. He said originally, in 1986, there were 20 countries in which guinea worm was endemic. But now 13 of them have put an end to the transmission of guinea worm. He says among the seven remaining countries where the disease is endemic, 98% of the guinea worm that remains is in southern Sudan and northern Ghana, “and it’s those two countries that need to pull to, and help finish this up by 2009.” He says the 2009 target was set by the World Health Organization in cooperation with the affected countries’ health ministries.
The Carter Center representative says guinea worm was chosen for eradication because, “it affects people’s health, it cripples them, it prevents children from attending school, it prevents farmers from farming, so it’s important for health, for agriculture and for education, and we can do something about it; we can prevent it.”
The doctor says the Carter Center is focused on diseases of neglected populations in rural areas “and neglected diseases that the rest of the world hasn’t focused on very much” because it’s trying to fill gaps and to help address problems not adequately addressed but that have solutions.
W-H-O FORMALIZES “NEGLECTED”
Dr. Hopkins says the World Health Organization has formally adopted the term “neglected” and has developed a list of about a dozen officially neglected diseases, but adds that “some of us have been calling them that for quite awhile.”
The Carter Center vice president says it wants to eradicate guinea worm, not just control it, because conditions that allow it to exist are widespread and will continue to be. He says if the parasite is stopped altogether it won’t remain in the environment, “so we have to get rid of the parasite; we cannot change the environment adequately fast enough, we CAN get rid of the parasite so that people will no longer get this disease.”
Dr. Hopkins says eradication is achieved by educating people with guinea worm to stay away from water for bathing and swimming because the parasites get into the water. Other tips include filtering drinking water through a finely woven cloth, or to use a chemical which can be put into the water, or to use bore hole wells if available…”so it’s basically a process of health education and teaching people how to protect themselves.”