Health workers say close to eradicating Guinea worm

By Matthew Bigg

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Health workers are on the verge of eradicating Guinea worm disease in what would be just the second time in history a disease has been wiped from the planet, the Carter Center said on Friday.

Cheap interventions such as hygiene education, using larvicides to kill the worm and distributing inexpensive cloths to help filter parasites from drinking water have cut the infection rate by 99 percent, reported the center founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Fewer than 5,000 cases of Guinea worm disease, also known as dracunculiasis, remain in Mali, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia, the center said.

There were around 3.5 million cases in 1986 when the global effort to get rid of the disease, led by the Carter Center, began. Last year the number had dropped to 9,600.

The center announced a new commitment of $55 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Britain’s Department for International Development to push to end the disease.

By 2009 the Center and U.N. World Health Organization say they hope there will be no cases and the following year the disease could be declared dead. A global vaccination effort eradicated the smallpox virus in 1979.

Few people die from the parasitic Guinea worm but it is very debilitating with fevers, blisters and extreme pain when the worms emerge from the body. It is spread by drinking unboiled stagnant water containing the larvae.

“These last few cases are the most difficult. But we won’t stop until the last case is gone,” Carter told a news conference.

He became emotional as he described meeting a woman in a village in Ghana who had 11 worms including one emerging from her breast. The village is now free from the disease, he said.

“The key heroes in this entire effort have been the local villagers … who have performed brilliantly to cut this disease down by 99 percent,” he said.

CHALLENGE IN SUDAN

The disease can be eradicated without vaccines or drugs because of the manner in which guinea worms reproduce, said Craig Withers of the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

The female worm resides inside its host’s intestine for a year and can grow to three feet (one meter) before piercing the skin and emerging inch by inch (centimeter by centimeter) over a period of weeks in the lower limbs, the roof of a victim’s mouth or genitals.

If the 5,000 known cases are cared for and kept away from stagnant water the guinea worms within them will die without laying their eggs and the disease’s cycle will be broken.

“We think that it (eradication) is doable in every country but southern Sudan is the greatest challenge because of the number of cases, the size of the area and the lack of infrastructure,” said Withers.  Continued…

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