During an appearance on HuffPost Live on Thursday, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced major progress in the fight to eradicate Guinea worm. Worldwide reported cases were cut in half to 542 in 2012 and provisional data indicate there were just 148 cases reported in 2013, with the vast majority occurring in the war-torn nation of South Sudan. “This is the first time since 1979 that we’re on the verge of eradicating a disease,” said Carter.
The global eradication campaign now moves to its final and most difficult stage, setting up Guinea worm to become the only disease other than small pox to be eradicated worldwide and the first disease to be eliminated entirely without the use of vaccines or medication.
The Guinea worm parasite makes its way into a human host when that person drinks unclean or stagnant drinking water infested with fleas that carry the worm’s larvae. It takes about a year for symptoms — including nausea, vomiting, an itchy rash, diarrhea, and slight fever — to present themselves, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Searing pain and open blisters in the lower limbs are common as the worm grows and moves around its host, and while fatalities from Guinea worm are uncommon, it has the potential to disable an infected patient.
There is no vaccine or drug that can eliminate Guinea worm, and people who have been infected have to undergo a painful extraction process that could leave them susceptible to infections if conducted improperly. The entirety of the eradication effort has consequently been dependent on encouraging behavioral changes, such as more effective sanitation habits and clean water campaigns.
There were over 3.5 million Guinea worm infections across 21 Asian and African nations in 1986, the year that the Carter Center launched its war on the guinea worm. Now, the disease is endemic to just four of the world’s poorest countries — South Sudan, Mali, Chad, and Ethiopia.
Chad, Mali, and Ethiopia had just 21 cases combined in 2012 and 32 in 2013, according to Carter. Over three-quarters of last year’s infections occurred in South Sudan (although the number was still a dramatic drop from the preceding year), where ongoing violent conflict has proved a major barrier to the eradication effort. Still, Carter sounded an optimistic note on progress in the coming years.
“I want to see Guinea worm eradicated during my lifetime, and I think we’ll be successful,” he said.
This post has been updated to include provisional data from 2013, which saw total cases drop even more drastically to 148 infections.