October 5th, 2011
01:49 PM ET
Britain will back a final push to wipe out a debilitating parasitic worm disease that is on the verge of worldwide eradication.
Former President Jimmy Carter, World Health Organization's director-general Margaret Chan and British officials in London, announced Wednesday a new campaign to rid the world of the Guinea worm, making it the second disease to be eradicated.
The British government pledged about $30 million in eradication efforts. International Development Minister Stephen O'Brien and Carter emphasized the need for donors to match the funds to get rid of the guinea worm.
"The eradication of guinea worm is within our sights," O'Brien said. "But it does still remain unfinished business, mainly for the poorest people in remote regions of the remaining four endemic countries where the worm persists."
The first disease to be wiped off the earth was smallpox, which was eliminated through vaccines.
Unlike smallpox, the Guinea worm disease is not fatal. But there is no treatment for it and there's no vaccine to prevent infection either, according t to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This disease can, however, cause permanent disabilities to people, crippling their livelihood and local economies.
The key to eradicating the disease is access to clean water and changes in people's behavior because the parasitic Guinea worm lives in stagnant water. When a person drinks the contaminated water, the worm grows inside its human host for a year until it emerges through the skin, causing great pain and in some cases, infections. The worm has been described in the Bible and Ancient Egyptian and Greek texts.
Today, the worm is far less pervasive. Statistics from 2010 show that 1,797 cases remain in the world, in four countries: Ethiopia, Mali, Chad and mostly South Sudan.
"For most of the world, this is an invisible worm - out of sight, out of mind, because it affects the poorest of the poor, people living in remote, rural areas," said Chan from the WHO.
Carter commended the British government for "its willingness and staying power to help eradicate this debilitating disease," and called on donors to match their efforts. The goal is to stop the transmission of the guinea worm before 2015.
Unlike diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, guinea worm is a little known disease. The Carter Center, based in Atlanta, Georgia, has led public health efforts tackling neglected diseases most Americans have never heard of.
"We have a policy at our center of undertaking difficult projects, quite often which no one else wants to adopt," Carter said during the press conference. "Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of this has been guinea worm."
Since 1986, the center's efforts have focused on health education, training of health workers and village volunteers who monitor and treat patients. The center has also supplied simple tools for clean drinking water and village-based education on avoiding the disease.
The greatest threat remains in the world's newest country, South Sudan, which has about 6,000 villages under surveillance by 12,000 health volunteers.
Calling the remaining cases "unfinished business," O'Brien said health officials had reason for cautious optimism. "We know the final mile can often be the longest part of the journey. "
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