Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Guinea Worm Eradication

The guinea worm, Dracunculus medinensis (dragon worm, serpent worm, medina worm) is the parasite of nightmares, the horrifying thin white worm that comes out through the skin causing terrible and enduring misery. It is real, but it may not be real for much longer.

Savelugu, Ghana; Feb. 8, 2007; Credit: The Carter Center
At Savelugu Hospital in Northern Region, Ghana,
former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife,
Rosalynn, watch as a Guinea worm health worker dresses a
child's extremely painful Guinea worm wound.

Guinea Worm History

 The guinea worm probably evolved in Africa – that continent is its stronghold – but in its heyday, it occurred in many parts of the Middle East and India, and as far north as parts of the USSR. As recently as the 1980s three and a half million people endured the nightmarish infection every year.  A Feb 28 New York Times article by Donald G. McNeil Jr. provides the number of cases recorded in 2010: less than 1800, all in Sudan, Mali, or Ethiopia (“Parasitic Disease: Guinea Worm Takes a Step Closer to Eradication, Jimmy Carter Says”).

McNeil writes that guinea worm “has proved notoriously hard to eradicate around the world.” When one considers, however, that of all the diseases afflicting humans, only smallpox has been eradicated to date, the fact that guinea worm is likely to be second is very impressive.

Guinea Worm's Weakness

What’s this dragon’s weak spot? Simply put, it’s the worm’s absolute reliance on people using the same pool of water as both drinking water and a place to sooth the unbearable lesion where the worm protrudes from the skin. Keep the parasite out of the water, or give people a means to avoid swallowing it (like drinking through a straw filter), and you prevent infection.

This is what’s been done. A multi-year 300 million dollar effort (relatively inexpensive as such efforts go) pushed forward by Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center, guinea worm has been beaten steadily back. I chronicle this dramatic effort in the book, Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests.  Odds are, this parasite will disappear forever in my lifetime.

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