Sometimes You Win One - A Big One
President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election in 1980 and for millions of people, that was a blessing - a lifesaving blessing. Of the many things Carter did after leaving office, one is of particular importance and yet receives minimal, if any, notice. Jimmy Carter established the Carter Center which in 1986 decided to tackle the Guinea Worm.
The Guinea Worm (Dracunculus Medinensis) is a parasite whose larvae live in pond water. In 1986, 3.5 million people annually were infected with the disease. People drink water contaminated with the larvae. Once the larvae gain a host, they begin to grow. The growth period is from 10 to 14 months and the resulting adult worm will measure from 60 to 100 cm (2 to 3 feet). When mature, the worm causes a lesion on the host eventually bursting through the skin. Removing the worm can require weeks as only a few centimeters per day can be pulled from the host. This is extremely painful and water alleviates some of the pain. Unfortunately, when the adult worm contacts water, it releases millions of larvae and the cycle repeats.
When the Carter Center decided to take on the challenge, it was as if they had gone to war. They collected data and worked with the CDC, WHO, UNICEF and local authorities in the areas affected. A few years after the initial data collection, they were approached by Swiss businessman Torben Frandsen. (Frandsen had owned a company that produced uniforms.) He had invented a little thing called the “Lifestraw” with the idea that it could reduce the incidence of diphtheria and cholera. Two other scientist/engineers (Rob Fleuren of Holland and Moshe Frommer of Israel) adapted and redesigned the device to be usable as a weapon against the Guinea Worm.
This new Lifestraw is 25 cm long, 29 mm in diameter, can process 700 litres of water and most important - it costs less than $2.00. The cost was critical because millions each year were infected with the disease. Armed with this new weapon and the coordination of the Carter Center, progress against the disease began - incrementally at first but with greater implementation of the LifeStraw and rapid responses based on Carter Center data, the disease began to wither.
When the effort began in 1986, there were 3.5 million people infected annually. In all of 2014, from every corner of the world, there were only 126 infections and eradication is an achievable goal. There are only four remaining countries with infestations: Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Mali. The noose is closing.
Three weeks ago, former President Carter announced that he was suffering from brain cancer. At his press conference he was asked if he had any remaining wishes. His response was:
I want the last Guinea Worm to die before I do.”