Jimmy Carter's 35-Year Mission To Eradicate Guinea Worm Almost Complete

Former president Jimmy Carter
Flickr | Lauren Gerson via LBJ Library

The 39th president of the United States has almost reached a goal that was decades in the making. The 97-year-old has been working for 35 years to eradicate Guinea worm disease, a nasty roundworm that afflicts people, mostly in central Africa.

While there were once millions of active cases of Guinea worm disease, that number is now down to just 14.

Carter will always be best remembered for his time as president.

Former president Jimmy Carter
Wikimedia Commons | Leffler, Warren K., photographer or Trikosko, Marion S., photographer

This is true of virtually every U.S. president, but Carter's life outside of his one-term presidency is fascinating on its own. From his service on a nuclear submarine to using sustainable farming methods on his peanut farm in Georgia, Carter has lived a full 97 years.

He's been working to fight Guinea worm disease for 35 years.

Guinea worm larvae
Wikimedia Commons | CDC/Dr. Mae Melvin

Guinea worm disease is, in a word, horrifying. The worm starts as larvae that infects water fleas. When humans drink from a water supply containing water fleas, the Guinea worm is transferred to their body.

A full-grown Guinea worm inside the human body can grow up to be three feet long.

It gets even grosser.

Gif: "I don't want to see that!"
Giphy | Travis

Having a three-foot-long worm in your body is bad enough, but get this: to complete its life cycle, the adult worm must return to the water. To accomplish this, it inflicts severe pain, making it the only parasite among humans that must cause pain in order to complete its life cycle.

Wait, there's more.

Shadow over a puddle
Unsplash | Trevor Gerzen

To get relief from burning pain, most humans will seek out a water source. At this point, the worm literally burrows out of its host body through a blister, enters the water source, and starts the whole process over again. There are pictures, but we won't subject them to you here.

For what it's worth, Guinea worm disease usually isn't fatal, but you can see why it's something we might want to eradicate.

It's been widespread in the past.

A chart showing decline of Guinea worm disease
Wikimedia Commons | Collegebookworm

As recently as 1986, there were 3.5 million Guinea worm cases in humans, and probably many more.

Thanks in part to Carter and his foundation's tireless work, that number shrunk to just 22 in 2015, and 14 in 2021.

Carter's foundation has driven the change.

Carter Center logo
Wikimedia Commons | Carter Center

The Carter Center, a charitable cause founded in 1982 by Carter and his wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, took over the Guinea Worm Eradication Program in 1986.

"Rosalynn and I are encouraged by the continued commitment and persistence of our partners and the citizens in the villages to eradicate the Guinea worm," Carter said in a statement.

Most cases are in central Africa.

Globe centered on Africa
Unsplash | James Wiseman

The case breakdown is as follows: in 2021, there were seven human cases in Chad, four in South Sudan, two in Mali and one in Ethiopia.

The Guinea worm also afflicts animals. These infections are harder to control, but there's progress in this area, as there are likely fewer than a thousand animals with the disease.

It's all about eradicating neglected tropical diseases.

Gloved hand preparing vaccine dose
Unsplash | Mufid Majnun

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused on neglected tropical diseases, including Guinea worm disease, in recent years. It's critical to fight these diseases, as, without intervention, they can spread freely in developing countries.

How did they do it?

Splashing water droplet
Unsplash | Amritanshu Sikdar

When it comes to combating Guinea worm disease, a lot of the solution comes in finding clean drinking water. Water filters help keep worm larvae out of drinking water. Additionally, using larvicide in stagnant water sources and quarantining active cases have both led to promising outcomes.

It's a big achievement.

jimmy carter, crowd
Facebook | President Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter is a renowned humanitarian, and it's likely that he'll be better known in the long run for his other accomplishments. But nearly eradicating Guinea worm disease is no small feat and has made a huge impact on people's lives in Africa.

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