Kicking Off 2016 With A Big Milestone

It is not everyday that a nasty parasitic disease is wiped off the face of the Earth…in fact, this has yet to have ever happened — until this year, when the Carter Center seems poised to complete its decades-long work in eradicating the debilitating guinea worm infection.

Once the scourge of the developing world — affecting nearly 4 million people less than three decades ago — this painful disease has been reduced to less than two dozen cases as of 2015 (which in turn was 83 percent less than in 2014).

The Daily Kos explains why this is such a big deal:

Considered a neglected tropical disease, Guinea worm disease (Dracunculiasis) is contracted when people consume water contaminated with Guinea worm larvae. After a year, a meter-long worm slowly emerges from the body through a painful blister in the skin. Guinea worm incapacitates people for weeks or months, making them unable to care for themselves, work, grow food for their families, or attend school.

Not only do victims contend with considerable discomfort and misery in the process, but entire families and communities suffer from the subsequent economic and educational impact.

Remarkably, this awful bug, which has bedeviled humankind for millennia, has no known vaccine, cure, or medical treatment; its destruction is due wholly to preventative measures and community-oriented interventions.

According to Vox:

The cycle was broken by both taking steps to purify water sources and conducting public education campaigns about the importance of not soaking guinea worm–affected body parts in a public water source. Dr. Michele Barry explained how the last works in practice in the New England Journal of Medicine:

In Uganda, the eradication program has employed elderly men as “pond caretakers” to guard ponds against contamination by worms emerging from people. When infected people are identified at a pond, the caretakers assist them with water gathering, preventing contamination of the water, and distribute nylon filters for ongoing prevention. Cash rewards are sometimes offered to those who report cases or to infected villagers who agree to be quarantined while the worm is emerging; often such persons receive free care and food during that period.

So not only is this the first time a parasitic disease has been eradicated, but also the first time that this was accomplished solely through education and behavior change.

As if all this was not impressive enough, Vox also points that in addition to vastly reducing the rate of infection, the Carter Center and its partners accomplished this with considerable cost-effectiveness:

Hopkins estimates the total cost of the three-decade eradication campaign at about $350 million. Any way you slice it, that’s a bargain given the amount of human suffering averted. A 2011 Center for Global Development case study pegged the cost at $5 to $8 per person treated; a 1997 analysis by the World Bank estimated that if one only considers the increase in agricultural productivity that would result from eradicating the worm (achieved by eliminating worm-related work absences), and no other potential benefits, the rate of return is 29 percent.

In other words, for every $1 invested in the campaign, $1.29 came back in the form of greater agricultural output and earnings.

Even better, the campaign comes with a number of positive externalities that help accomplish other global development tasks. There’s the increase in agricultural productivity, for one thing, but additionally, researchers at the Carter Center and Emory point out that school attendance can tick up when an area is rid of guinea worm.

They cite a study in Nigeria that found that villages given wells (providing a source of clean, worm-free drinking water) saw the incidence of the disease fall 62.5 percent as attendance at school rose 50 percent and enrollment went up by 12 percent.

Learn more about this milestone from the official Carter Center press release here.

Technically, a disease is only officially eradicated following an extensive certification process of every country in the world. But at the rate that guinea worm is declining, it seems poised for formal recognition as a moribund disease very soon.

Of course, whether it is officially gone or not, the millions of people now freed from this horrific disease are evidence enough of a job well done. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, their organization, and the thousands of partners that worked with them, should be commended for such a stunning achievement. What a way to start to the new year.

In addition to being at the forefront of wiping out guinea-worm and other neglected yet troubling diseases, the Carter Center has been spearheading a multitude of humanitarian efforts ranging from guaranteeing free and fair elections, to ending the stigma of mental illness.

In addition to its measurable results, the group scores very well on watchdogs like Charity Navigator, which further ensures that its funds are well spent. I invite readers to join me in being a regular contributor, or giving what you can to help humanity reach more humanitarian watersheds like this.


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