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Medical Physician | Founder & CEO of PDP Health

The End of Guinea Worm?

For years, smallpox held a special distinction as the only disease that humans managed to eradicate. Now, Guinea worm may soon join those ranks of extinct ailments. According to NPR Shots, there are exactly two confirmed cases of Guinea worm in the world, both in Chad.

Guinea worm is a parasite that, while not fatal, is terribly painful. Larvae live in the water, and when a human drinks from a contaminated source, the larvae enter the body. Once they hatch than can grow into three foot long worms inside of the body. After a year, a blister forms on the lower body and the worm makes a slow exit. In order to ease the painful burning sensation, many of the affected plunge their legs into cool water. While this provides some temporary release, it allows thousands o new worm larvae to be released into the water beginning the cycle all over again. Extraction can be painful, and usually involves using a heated knife to incise the wound and cut out the worm. Although the parasite itself isn’t fatal, sometimes the wounds caused during the extraction process can become infected, leading to numerous other problems.

Guinea worm doesn’t have a cure, but the way to halt it is to encourage people not to dunk the affected area into the water. Without a water source, the worm cannot spread it’s larvae. But that’s only half the battle. Just as important is being able to get human populations that are susceptible to Guinea Worm infections access to clean, safe drinking water.

So what went in place? Turns out that eradicating Guinea Worm required the participation of all people involved. Even though people were aware that entering a a body of water wasn’t good in the long term, the urge to do so was still overwhelming. So, communities have taken steps like installing guards at local watering holes who will fine violators.

But most importantly perhaps, is that the fight against Guinea worm demonstrates how important cultural awareness is during public health campaigns. Education is an important agent of change, but new rules and laws should be imposed by leaders within the community. Even if an outsider has the best intentions, no one really wants an outsider imposing new rules and restrictions on a community they are otherwise familiar with. We’ve seen this, for example, with the recent Ebola crisis. Even though WHO workers and volunteers knew their methods were the best way for dealing with infected bodies, local populations resented their very presence. Now, even those who volunteered to save their communities are being shunned by them.

If Guinea worm is rendered extinct, it will serve as an example for how pubic health advocates can advance their agenda in a respectful and effective way.