Dracunculiasis is a parasitic infection that once afflicted millions primarily in Africa and parts of South Asia. Thanks to the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter and the Atlanta-based Carter Center working with government health ministries, the disease historically known as Guinea Worm is on the verge of becoming a historical footnote.
During Carter’s August announcement he was battling cancer, he made it clear he has plenty left to do. One big wish:
“I would like for the last Guinea Worm to die before I do," he said.
Guinea Worm is relatively unknown in the developed world. But elsewhere, it is a feared parasite that infects humans through contaminated drinking water. It grows and causes excruciating pain when emerging through the skin.
The global campaign to wipe out the disease started at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In 1980 CDC proposed that if we wanted to assess sustainable development, clean water systems around the world, the eradication of Guinea Worm would be an indicator of whether we’ve been able to do that," said CDC Director Tom Frieden.
In 1986, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the complete eradication of Guinea Worm. That’s when the Carter Center stepped in.
“We started out with 3.6 million cases. And I think we have two cases in South Sudan and one case in Ethiopia and one case in Mali and seven cases in Chad. That’s all the guinea worms in the world, and we know where all of them are," said Carter.
The path to complete eradication depends on Carter Center initiatives to monitor and filter drinking water.
“It’s just an historic effort to be able to drive the incidence of disease from an estimated 3.5 million cases in 1986 to only 14 cases today as of today," said Director of Guinea Worm Eradication Program, Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben.
If those 14 cases are the last ones on earth, Guinea Worm would join smallpox as only the second human disease in history to be eradicated.
“To think that because of President Carter’s leadership and work, and the CDC and our partners around the world, 80 million people will not have to go through that torture. That is a legacy that is just unbelievable and inspiring," said Frieden.
For the World Health Organization to declare Guinea Worm eradicated, there must be zero cases of the disease for three calendar years.
“The pressure is on us to try to finish what remains to be done as soon as possible," said Ruiz-Tiben.