April 19, 2004

Carters visit Africa to raise Guinea worm awareness        

Sarah Fedota is assistant director for publications at the Carter Center.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, traveled to West Africa in February to focus international attention on the need to eliminate the last 1 percent of Guinea worm disease remaining in the world.

This debilitating disease, seen mostly in West Africa and Sudan, is down from 3.5 million cases in 1986, when the Carter Center began to focus on the illness, to fewer than 32,000 incidences today.

"Guinea worm disease is unfamiliar, even unimaginable, to most people in the developed world," Carter said. "Yet relieving the suffering it causes is as easy as educating people about the disease and providing them with simple solutions to make their drinking water safe. Health is a human right and can be a foundation for peace. Working together, we can stop Guinea worm now."

The Carters spoke with government leaders in several countries to learn more about their challenges in combating the disease. "Carter Center experts have predicted for years that the last few cases will be the hardest, requiring extra human and financial resources to overcome," Carter said.

In a two-day visit to Togo, Carter met with President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who pledged to support the campaign to step up the fight against the disease, as well as Prime Minister Koffi Sama, Minister of Health Suzanne Aho and leaders of Togo's national eradication program. As part of its efforts, the Carter Center and the Japanese government signed an agreement ensuring financial aid of more than $100,000 to continue the significant progress already made in the country.

Lee Jong-Wook, director-general of the World Health Organization, and Kul Gautam, UNICEF deputy executive director, both representing organizations that collaborate closely with the center in the fight to eradicate Guinea worm, joined the Carters in Ghana. The most endemic country in West Africa, Ghana accounts for about 25 percent of the 32,000 remaining cases and threatens Togo's success as the disease travels across the border between the two countries.

At the Guinea worm-afflicted village of Dashei (population 841), the Carters met victims of the disease, visited a water source and Guinea worm care center, and participated in health education sessions.

"In Ghana," Carter said, "the resources, support, knowledge and ability to eradicate Guinea worm disease are in place. It is up to Ghana to commit to the challenge by taking swift and immediate action."

Ghana's minister of health, Kwaku Afriyie, accepted that challenge, saying, "Ghana must raise public awareness and gain a sense of urgency at all levels to turn its numbers around and no longer hold the title of most endemic Guinea worm country in West Africa."

The Carter Center delegation, including Ed Cain, director of the center's Global Development Initiative, also traveled to Mali to meet with President Amadou Toumani Touré and lend support to the launch of Mali's Development and Cooperation Initiative. This multiyear effort to reduce poverty is designed to work with the government and civil society to strengthen democratic institutions, improve development planning, increase citizen input into development policy, and build the government's capacity to better coordinate external assistance around national priorities.

Each day of his West Africa trip, Carter wrote "blogs," or web logs, recording his thoughts and impressions. To read more about the trip, visit www.cartercenter.org .