The Guinea worm, a deadly human parasite that once affected millions of people throughout Africa, may soon be eradicated, former President Jimmy Carter told The Associated Press on Feb. 2.
Carter’s charity, the Carter Center, has been working to eliminate dracunculiasis, the disease caused by the parasite, for more than 30 years. The center’s efforts have reduced the number of cases from 3.5 million cases spread throughout 31 countries in 1986, to 22 cases last year, in just four countries: South Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad.
The 91-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner said the feat would be “the most exciting and gratifying accomplishment of [his] life,” speaking to AP from London, where he addressed the House of Lords on Feb. 3.
"We've prevented about 80 million people from having Guinea worm, so this is a great accomplishment in itself," Carter told AP in Juba, South Sudan. "If we keep that up, it'll just be a year or two [before there are zero cases]."
Guinea worm, Dracunculus medinensis, is a water-borne parasite that is ingested as a larva in water and then burrows its way out through a person’s flesh. The worms can reach up to 3 feet long. There is no cure, so the worm has to be physically pulled out through a painful blister in a process that can take weeks.
The Carter Center worked to tackle the disease by preventing infected people from entering water sources where the parasite could lay its eggs and spread to others in the area, reports AP. Thousands of volunteers and medical workers treated infected patients and taught people in remote villages to filter their water using a special cloth to avoid ingesting the larvae of the Guinea worm.
Carter’s efforts, if successful, would make Guinea worm the first parasitic disease, and second human disease overall, to be completely eradicated. Smallpox, a viral disease that causes flulike symptoms, as well as a painful rash, and ends in death, was eliminated worldwide by 1980.
Several obstacles still stand in the way of complete eradication of Guinea worm in Africa, most prominently the ongoing conflicts in Mali and South Sudan. Mali has been fighting an Islamist insurgency since a coup in 2012, and South Sudan is stuck in a two-year civil war that often disrupts the delivery of aid.