On Monday (March 4th), the International Conference on the Eradication of Guinea Worm Disease gets underway in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Of the more than 60-thousand cases of the disease reported, 80-percent are in Sudan.

The four-day conference is sponsored by the Sudanese Government, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Carter Center.

Former U-S President Jimmy Carter will speak at the opening ceremony. In an interview with VOA, Mr. Carter said recent years have brought great success in the campaign against Guinea Worm.

Mr. Carter said, "We found Guinea worm in 23 different nations. Three in Asia ? India, Pakistan and Yemen and the rest of them in sub-Saharan Africa. There were about three and a half million cases of Guinea worm in those countries. And we?ve now eliminated 98 percent of them. Seven countries have zero Guinea worm remaining. And the others have a fairly small number of Guinea worm cases, except for southern Sudan. We now have about 80-percent of the remaining cases in southern Sudan."

The disease is caused by a parasite that migrates through the body. The World Health Organization says in most cases, the worm emerges from the feet, causing a very painful blister and then an ulcer. The infected person also suffers from fever and nausea. The disease cripples its victims, leaving them unable to work or attend school.

Infection is caused by drinking contaminated water. There are no drugs to treat it.

Mr. Carter says that although Guinea worm disease has been around for thousands of years, it had received little attention. "The reason is that the disease does not exist in developed parts of even the poorest nations because even in cities the water is obtained from deep wells or from running water," the former president said. "Whereas the Guinea worm disease existed in the most isolated villages in very dry areas where no streams, no running water existed and where no deep wells had been bored. So the isolation of it and the poverty of the people has prevented presidents of nations and ministers of health and others from turning their attention to this disease."

However, when an effort is made, eradicating the disease can be fairly simple. Mark Pelletier is the resident technical adviser for the Carter Center in Sudan. He says eradication is a three-step process: "One is health education. Guinea worm is spread when somebody has an emerging worm. They step into a water source, a water supply. They contaminate the water source. They drink the water, the contaminated water, and the disease spreads that way. So one way is to educate people why not to step into the water if they have an emerging worm. Two, is to filter the current water that they have. And we provide monofilament filters to villages that are endemic. And the last way is to apply something we call ABATE, a non harmful chemical treatment that you put in the water that kills the larvae."

Most cases of Guinea worm disease are in Sudan because eradication efforts have been blocked by civil war in the south. For 18 years, the Khartoum government has battled rebels, pitting the mostly Muslim north against the Christian and animist south.

Mr. Pelletier says the disease could be eradicated quickly in Sudan. "I would say in Sudan four to five years if the conflict were to end today. If the conflict doesn?t end, I don?t know," he said.

Despite that, former president Carter is optimistic about the overall campaign. "Well, I think by the end of the year 2003, we should be down to maybe Guinea worm disease in not more than three countries, he said. "One might be Ghana, one might be Nigeria and the other one obviously will be Sudan."

In 1995, The Carter Center mediated a six-month cease-fire in southern Sudan that allowed widespread humanitarian relief operations. (Signed) NEB/JDC