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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Eradicating Guinea Worm

A patient at the CAse Containment Center in Savelugu, Ghana, has two guinea worms emerging from his foot. (Courtesy of The Carter Center/L. Gubb)

A patient in Savelugu, Ghana, with two guinea worms emerging from his foot. (Courtesy of The Carter Center/L. Gubb)

Only one human disease has ever been completely eradicated — smallpox — but we are now close to eliminating a second: dracunculiasis or Guinea worm disease.

Guinea worm disease is a parasitic worm infection that occurs mainly in Africa. It’s contracted by drinking standing water that contains water fleas that harbor the tiny larvae of the Guinea worm. The worm then grows inside a person’s abdomen, and can become as large as three feet long.

“People are energized, they are able to work, because you’ve had farmers unable to farm, school children unable to go to school for months on end.”
– Dr. Donald Hopkins, on how people respond when they're able to prevent Guinea worm infections

The nonprofit Carter Center has been giving technical and financial assistance to national eradication programs across the world since 1986.

Back then, there were 3.5 million cases. Today there are just over a thousand cases worldwide, primarily in Sudan.

A big part of the Carter Center’s work is outreach and educating people about how to use filters to separate out the water fleas that carry the infective larvae.

Dr. Donald Hopkins, vice president of health programs at the Carter Center, told Here and Now‘s Robin Young that people in Africa who have been able to protect themselves from the infection using water filters are greatly relieved.

“People are energized, they are able to work, because you’ve had farmers unable to farm, school children unable to go to school for months on end,” he said.

Hopkins said that getting rid of a disease that villagers have suffered for generations has empowered them.

“That encourages them to think about other ways they can improve their lives as well,” he said.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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