“Affliction With Little Dragons” Could Be the First Eradicated Human Parasite

The nasty parasite known as Guinea worm that has plagued humans since the days of the ancient Egyptians is on the verge of being completely eradicated, former president Jimmy Carter declared on Friday. The Carter Foundation has led the effort against Guinea worm, which could soon be remembered as the second disease to ever be wiped out by human efforts, smallpox being the first. There have been fewer than 5,000 cases of the disease in six African countries this year, and on Friday Carter announced two new grants dedicated to wiping out the final hotspots: The British government has pledged $15 million, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will contribute $40 million.

Guinea Worm is one of the worst parasites you can get. The worms burrow inside of you, grow to almost three feet long, are incredibly painful, and finally pop out of the skin and have to be reeled out, inch by inch, over many days [The New York Times blog]. The parasites have been found in Egyptian mummies, and the official name for the infection, dracunculiasis, references an archaic-sounding pain: it’s Latin for “affliction with little dragons.” Doctors have no vaccines or medicine with which to combat the parasite; instead they rely on prevention to keep people from getting infected. However, humans are the only host for the parasite, so ending outbreaks in human populations would destroy the worm forever.

Guinea worm has been found across Africa from Mali to Ethiopia with most current cases in Sudan. Only 4,410 cases were reported worldwide during the first ten months of this year, with 80% found in Sudan [BBC News]. The Carter Center says that when the eradication campaign began in 1986 there were 3.5 million cases in 20 nations. While the enormous progress made thus far is encouraging, Carter Center official Craig Withers says the final hotspots pose a particular challenge. “It is a question of education…. Our staff are having to wade through swamps, sometimes up to their necks, to reach remote villages in Southern Sudan” [BBC News].

The disease is caused by drinking water infected with the larvae of the Guinea worm, which then grow into maturity and mate within the human body cavity. The female then burrows outward towards the skin and emerges in a painful blister; traditionally infected people run to the water to cool the burning pain, which allows the worm to release a new generation of larvae. Educating people to filter water before drinking, drilling wells for clean water and treating infected water with chemicals eliminates contagion. Filter materials have been given out, along with drinking straws with built-in filters that are worn around the neck on a string…. “Once we eliminate it from a particular water hole, it is gone forever,” Carter said [Atlanta Journal-Constitution].