Emory Report
January 22, 2007
Volume 59, Number 16

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January 22 , 2007
Carter Center celebrates closing a chapter on Guinea worm disease

meryl Bailey is communications coordinator for the carter center's health programs

On a rainy Wednesday evening in November, the mood was anything but dreary as African dignitaries and health experts came to The Carter Center to celebrate a historic moment in public health history. During a special awards ceremony and reception on Nov. 15, four African countries were honored for their victories in breaking free from the shackles of Guinea worm disease. Guinea worm, a debilitating disease that causes severe pain and economic hardship and once plagued millions of people in Africa and Asia, today sits on the brink of eradication.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter congratulated Benin, Central African Republic, Mauritania and Uganda for stopping transmission of the parasitic infection for one year.

“Benin, Central African Republic, Mauritania and Uganda are symbols of hope in the fight against Guinea worm disease,” said Carter, the Center’s founder and 2002 Nobel laureate. “The countries’ success in halting the spread of the disease demonstrates a commitment to providing good health and economic progress to those living in isolated and impoverished communities.”

During the ceremony, Carter, Donald R. Hopkins, associate executive director for health programs at The Carter Center, and Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, technical director for the Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program, presented each country with a hand-carved sculpture inscribed with the year in which the country stopped transmission of the disease. The countries join Cameroon, Chad, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Senegal and Yemen in reaching this accomplishment. Only nine endemic countries remain, all in Africa, with several expected to stop transmission in 2007.

In addition to honoring the four countries, Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter presented Nigeria’s former Head of State General Yakubu Gowon and Emmanuel Miri, country representative of The Carter Center in Nigeria, with the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Guinea Worm Eradication for their major roles in Nigeria’s impending victory over Guinea worm disease.

Once the most Guinea worm-endemic country in the world, Nigeria reached a major milestone when it reported only 16 cases of Guinea worm disease in 2006, compared to 120 cases in 2005. It is likely that Nigeria will end transmission in 2007.

In 1986, The Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program began its work by assisting Pakistan with its efforts to eradicate the disease. Today, The Carter Center spearheads the global Guinea worm eradication campaign with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, national ministries of health and many other partner organizations. The global campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease has reduced the number of cases worldwide by more than 99.7 percent: from an estimated 3.5 million in 1986 to 10,674 reported in 2005. Together, Ghana and Sudan now report 99 percent of the world’s remaining cases.

Guinea worm disease is an ancient parasitic infection that affects people living in remote, poverty-stricken communities. The disease is contracted when people consume water contaminated with infective larvae.
After a year, the 2- to 3-foot-long worm slowly emerges from the body through an agonizingly painful blister it creates in the skin. Children suffering from the disease cannot attend school because they, and other victims, are incapacitated for an average of two months after a worm has begun to emerge. Communities suffer food shortages when their residents are unable to farm.

The global initiative to eradicate Guinea worm disease aims to stop transmission in all of the remaining endemic countries by 2009.