29 August 2008

Will the end of Dracunuliasis be Jimy Carter's enduring legacy?

I don’t usually bother with newspaper columnists or commentators. Most irritate or infuriate me, including Johann Hari. But today one of his articles caught my eye.It is about what will hopefully be the imminent demise of Dracunuliasis, a particularly unpleasant parasitic infestation

And now for the great news... some time next year – or soon after – a beautiful moment in the history of humanity will come to pass on the Western shores of Africa. An excruciatingly painful disease that has stalked humans for millennia will end – forever.

The story of how this came to pass begins just 20 years ago, in a tiny village in Ghana. The former US President Jimmy Carter stumbled across a crying woman who appeared to be cradling a baby to her right breast. He stepped forward to talk to her – but he reeled back when he realised a 3ft-long worm was inching its way out of her nipple, at the centre of an engorged, purpling breast. It was one of 11 guinea worms taking a month or more to crawl out of the young woman's body that summer. One was burrowing out from her vagina. The woman couldn't speak; she could only howl.

She was living through a guinea worm infestation. One survivor, Hyacinth Igelle, says: "The pain is like if you stab somebody. It is like fire. You feel it even in your heart." ... The worm's head causes a blister that often develops deadly tetanus; if the victims survive, they can starve because they have not been able to farm their fields for months. Many scholars now believe that when the Old Testament Israelites were afflicted by "fiery serpents" in their flesh, they were meeting this worm for the first time.

When Jimmy Carter first encountered the disease, some 3.5 million people were riddled with guinea worm. Tens of millions of people had endured it from Europe to Asia; it was regarded as an intractable, eternal problem. The idea of eradicating it was mocked as "utopian". But today, the number has been slashed by more than 99 per cent. Fewer than 10,000 people, in a few remaining pockets of Ghana and Sudan, still suffer – and soon, there will be no one at all.

This achievement is all the more startling when you realise there is no vaccination or cure for the disease. Guinea worm eggs are carried on the backs of a tiny water-flea, and glugged down by humans with their drinking water. The eggs hatch in your abdomen, growing over a year to 3ft long – and then they begin to dig their way out. They can choose any point of your body to emerge from: your eyeball, your penis, your feet, destroying as they go. As they do, they spew millions more eggs into any water they come into contact with. Once the worm is within you, the only help doctors can offer is to wait until it bursts out and wrap the worm's head round a stick to try to very gently tug it out a little faster.

But you can stop people contracting the parasite in the first place – and Carter has, on a massive scale. The practices are startlingly simple: the distribution of egg-catching water filters that cost around 60 pence each, and mass education about why they matter. But it took a vast effort to get them in place, including brokering a "guinea worm ceasefire" to the Sudanese civil war that allowed aid workers free access. So Carter raised $225m (£123m) from governments and private donors, and used it to drive the worms off the earth, one village at a time. At 84, he is determined to outlive the last of these little parasites.

This Carter-led programme is sending guinea worm to the mourner-free graveyard of eradicated diseases, along with smallpox and (soon) polio. But it doesn't end there. In a cynicism-drugged age, it is a reminder of what we can do, if we have the determination.

Our governments are very good at building weapons of mass destruction – but for a fraction of the cash they could unleash weapons of mass salvation, eradicating disease after disease. This programme... proves money from outside, if used intelligently, can massively improve the lives of ordinary Africans. Indeed, it can achieve goals that seemed at the start like utopian fantasies.

I was not aware of the Guinea Worm eradication programme especially since it is apparently so close to success. It certainly shows what is achievable if there is the will to make a change. Carter is to be praised for his efforts. He may not have been a distinguished president but this is legacy to be proud of.

Click here for more information about the eradication from the Carter Centre.

11 comments:

Nunyaa said...

What an insidious disease. Sounds just ghastly and be an awful way to suffer for those afflicted. Kudos to Jimmy Carter !

Nunyaa said...

Great post by the way Jams :)

jams o donnell said...

It is nasty, no doubt about that. It will be a fine legacy. Perhaps Blair, Bush and former (or soon to be former) leaders others could think about something like this

Dragonstar said...

I'd never heard of this horrific parasite. Well done Jimmy Carter!

thepoetryman said...

Great job, Jimmy! I had not heard of this either... Wow. Thanks to good people like President Carter we will have to read about it in history books.

CherryPie said...

What an awful disease, I had never heard of it before. It is an amazing story thought!

Liz said...

What a great thing to be remembered for. I have never heard of that disease and it sounds hideous!

I saw Jimmy Carter when he came to Swansea and we were both on board a Christian medicine and book ship.

Liz said...

What a great thing to be remembered for. I have never heard of that disease and it sounds hideous!

I saw Jimmy Carter when he came to Swansea and we were both on board a Christian medicine and book ship.

jams o donnell said...

I.m glad you've all found this post of interest.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Excellent post and I have read nothing of this in any news from any country. Well done, jams, for telling us about it and well done, the peanut farmer for doing something about it.

jams o donnell said...

Love or hate Carter this is something worthy of at least some news coverage Wlshcakes