Health remains, undoubtedly, one of the cornerstones of development. So often though, we read about poor health and misery in impoverished nations around the world, and look the other way. We despair, and chunks of society in the West have given up. ‘No hope for Africa’ is what you hear time and again.
Well, read on. This story is all about victory and glorious success. Against a debilitating and painful disease called Dracunculiasis (no relation to Dracula mind you). Also called Guinea Worm, it’s a disease you get by drinking contaminated water that contains miniscule copepods that in turn got infected by larvae from a nematode worm called Dracunculus medinensis. A year after becoming infected, the female worm has grown in size up to a miraculous 1 meter in length, when it creates a blister, usually on the lower extremities. When submerged in water, from the blister, the worm releases thousands of new larvae in the water that in turn infect the copepods and complete the life-cycle.
And this is where matches come into play. It has been common practice to tie the end of the worm around a matchstick [see video below], and slowly pull it out from the leg by twisting it bit by bit, every day, until the entire worm is removed. Although this can work, secondary infections often occur at the site of the blister, or worse, the worm gets killed when it snaps, causing leg infections. Although the infection is not lethal, its painful presence prevents people from working or attending schools. A Nigerian study showed that losses in rice farming accrued to 20 million $ due to Guinea Worm disease.
Guinea Worm can be prevented quite easily. Water can be filtered through fine mesh cloth to avoid drinking copepods. Water from underground sources (wells, boreholes) is not contaminated. And preventing people with open blisters from contacting water sources interrupts transmission.
These simple measures inspired former US President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center back in 1985 to tackle Guinea Worm. Together with the CDC, UNICEF, WHO, and backed with stacks of cash from the Gates Foundation, the battle has been hugely successful.
In 1986, there were still 3,5 million cases in 20 countries in Africa and Asia. In 2009 only 3,190 remained in the four countries still afflicted: Sudan, Ghana, Mali and Ethiopia.
Nigeria was the worst affected country, with more than 270 thousand cases in the early 1990s. Only 495 cases were reported in 2004, then 38 in 2008, and victory over the disease was declared in 2010. This victory cost some 37,5 million $.
Guinea Worm is now listed by WHO as a disease that will be wiped from the face of the planet over the next few years. Sudan is the remaining hotspot, but after signing the peace declaration in 2005 the eradication programme was intensified. Were there more than 15 thousand cases in 2006, last year there were only 2,733 left. Sudan will succeed.
Resources, will, and political backing. Key ingredients for successful disease elimination programmes.
If in the near future anyone in your surroundings is cynical about development and Africa, tell them about Guinea Worm and the glorious victory over this disease. Tell them that Nigeria no longer needs matchsticks…