Guinea worm eradication in sight, says former US President

Nigeria is on the verge of eliminating guinea worm, a debilitating water borne disease, after cases dropped by 99 percent since 1988, said visiting former United States president Jimmy Carter, who has led an international campaign against the disease.

Despite the massive fall in the number of cases, Nigeria is one of only three countries in the world –- the others being Ghana and Sudan -- where guinea worm remains endemic.

“When we began the eradication here [in Nigeria] in 1988 we had 653,000 cases. The latest result we have is 115 cases only,” said Carter from the Nigerian capital Abuja on Monday while on a three nation tour of Africa.

The Carter Centre, set up by the former president, has been at the forefront of worldwide efforts to eradicate guinea worm since the mid-1980s.

World-wide infections have dipped from 3.5 million in 1986 to just over 16,000 in 2004.

Guinea worm is caused by a parasite known as dracunculus medinensis and ingested through larvae-contaminated water.

Though fatalities from the disease are rare, usually resulting from complications due to secondary infections, guinea worm disease is debilitating and often leaves victims crippled for life.

While Nigeria is close to eradicating the disease, a twenty-year civil war continues to scupper eradication efforts in Sudan.

In the past, the former president has said that Ghana has proved the most frustrating country in the battle against guinea worm despite being the first nation, along with Pakistan, to receive help from the Carter Centre to eradicate the disease in 1986.

There, access to clean drinking water remains a problem across much of the north and east of the country. In many villages, residents share their water sources with livestock and aiding contamination, according to previous reports by Ghanaian health officials.

After a person drinks contaminated water, larvae grow inside the host’s body up to a length of one metre before exiting, generally through excruciating blisters on the legs.

Due to the burning pain, victims often soak their legs in water for relief. The resulting sudden drop in temperature usually ruptures the blisters, letting out worms and further contaminating the local water supply.

In the absence of a vaccine or treatment, efforts to halt the cycle have focused on health education to bring about changes in individual behaviour and on encouraging communities to improve safety of their water sources.

With the assistance of local health authorities, people have been taught to use nylon or cloth filters to eliminate water fleas that carry the larvae of the ‘fiery serpent’.

Local volunteers were also trained to carry out surveillance and regular interventions through the chemical treatments of stagnant ponds and streams and the Carter Center gives monetary rewards to Nigeria villagers who report cases of guinea worm to the health authorities.

The Carter Centre is not alone in the quest to end guinea worm disease. Also on Monday, the UN children's agency UNICEF announced a US $41.4 million grant from the European Union to help the eradication push.

General Yakubu Gowon, a former Nigerian military ruler and chairman of the Guinea Worm Eradication Project in Nigeria was positive the battle against guinea worm, in his country at least, would soon be won.

"The consolation is that the final victory will surely be ours, and is already on the horizon," he said.