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Guinea Worm Disease Focus of Jimmy Carter's Campaign


Chances are you never heard of guinea worm disease, and if Jimmy Carter has his way, the disease will follow the path of smallpox and be eliminated from the planet. The painful, often crippling infection has been a target of the Carter Centre since 1986, and according to the Guardian, Carter stated that “It is likely by the end of this year we will have guinea worm in only one country—the newest one on earth—South Sudan.”

What is guinea worm disease?

Guinea worm disease (also known as dracunculiasis) is a parasitic worm infection that is present primarily in African countries. People contract the disease when they drink water that contains a tiny water flea that is infected with the larvae of the guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis).

Once the larvae are inside the body, they develop into immature worms, mature into adulthood, and mate. The male worm dies, but the female keeps growing until it reaches a length of about 3 feet with a diameter about that of thin spaghetti.

Approximately one year after the larvae enter the body, the worm is ready to leave. Typically the worm comes out in the lower limbs through a painful, burning blister in the skin. To help ease the pain, people with guinea worms often go into the water, which causes the blisters to break and the female worm to emerge enough to release larvae into the water, which starts the cycle all over again.

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The worm then can emerge, but it must be pulled out of the body very gradually, often over a period of weeks or months. Withdrawing the worm from the body is a very painful process, and the wound becomes swollen and infected. Once the worm is gone, many people have scars and permanent crippling, and they can get infected again and again.

How to eradicate guinea worm disease

In 1986, there were approximately 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease in the world; today there are only about 1,000. Because there is no cure nor vaccine for the disease, nor any medication that can end or prevent infection, the only way to eradicate the disease is to keep guinea worm larvae out of the people’s drinking water.

To that end, wells are being drilled for uncontaminated water, and people in affected areas are being educated on how to filter their drinking water to remove the guinea worm larvae. According to Carter, “When we go into a place like South Sudan, we have personally trained about 12,000 local volunteers and taught them aspects of healthcare and about good water that is clean to drink. We have often been able to dig deep wells that are free from disease.”

If guinea worm disease is eradicated, it will be only the second disease of humans to be eliminated from the world. In the Guardian, Carter was quoted as saying there are other benefits from helping people get rid of this disease. “When we go in and teach them how they can correct their own problem, they not only learn the rudiments of healthcare and sanitation but they learn how to be self-sufficient and gain self-respect.”

Directors of Health Promotion and Education
Guardian, Oct 5, 2011

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons