It sounds like the plot of a preposterous B-movie: former US president Jimmy Carter is going to single-handedly slay a dragon that has been terrorising the world since biblical times.
For accuracy’s sake we may have to replace ‘single-handedly’ with ‘backed by a huge amount of money from Bill Gates and the British government’. And we’ll have to change ‘dragon’ to ‘affliction with little dragons’.
What we’re actually talking about here is the nasty parasitic Guinea worm (dracunculiasis: “affliction with little dragons”) that is found in Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. This, says the New England Journal of Medicine, is “a plague so ancient that it has been found in Egyptian mummies and has been proposed by some to have been the ‘fiery serpent’ described in the Old Testament as torturing the Israelites in the desert”.
Carter announced last week that there were fewer than 5,000 cases remaining worldwide, and he unveiled a collaboration between his Carter Center, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development to finally slay the dragon.
“Guinea worm is poised to be the second disease eradicated from Earth, ending needless suffering for millions of people from one of the world’s oldest and most horrific afflictions,” says Carter (press release). “The reduction of Guinea worm cases by more than 99 percent proves that when people work together, great positive change is possible.”
The full, horrific details of the worm are provided by the US Centres for Disease Control:
Approximately 1 year after a person drinks contaminated water, the adult female Guinea worm emerges from the skin of the infected person. Persons with worms protruding through the skin may enter sources of drinking water and unwittingly allow the worm to release larvae into the water. These larvae are ingested by microscopic copepods (tiny “water fleas”) that live in these water sources. Persons become infected by drinking water containing the water fleas harbouring the Guinea worm larvae.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that just filtering infected drinking water can eliminate the disease. Distributing filtering materials has been a key strategy, along with treating water to eliminate the water fleas. “Once we eliminate it from a particular water hole, it is gone forever,” Carter says.
As most villages have been cleaned up, the ones remaining are likely to be the hardest to deal with, hence the new push. “Our staff are having to wade through swamps, sometimes up to their necks, to reach remote villages in Southern Sudan,” Craig Withers, of the Carter Center, told the BBC.
Image: Carter slays the Guinea Worm (actually: Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint George and the Dragon, via Wikipedia).