From 3 million to 13: Jimmy Carter’s goal to eradicate Guinea worm disease nearly finished

Efforts by Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center have nearly eradicated Guinea worm disease.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 5:42 PM EST
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PLAINS, Ga. (WALB) — One of President Carter’s accomplishments during his lifetime has been the near eradication of Guinea Worm disease. It’s caused by a parasite that can cripple its victims.

In just 40 years, the number of cases has decreased from millions to only a few. As of January 2023, there are 13 known cases, an all-time low. This number will be confirmed in March according to The Carter Center.

In a 2015 interview, President Carter said he hoped to outlive the last Guinea worm case. Jill Stuckey is close with the family. Stuckey is also the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter Historical Park. She reflects on the impact the Carters have made.

“Never count President Carter out, because he it’s just an amazing human being. And he has that well, and if he wants to outlive the last Guinea worm. He’ll do it,” Stuckey said.

Guinea worm’s effects are similar to polio. It leaves people unable to walk for weeks or months. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter took frequent trips to Africa to monitor the progress.

“They need medical care. And if it’s an adult, they can’t go into the field and plant crops. It’s devastating economically, and the pain is terrible. And these are innocent children,” Jimmy Carter said in an interview in Africa.

Photo of water being filtered to prevent Guinea worm disease
Photo of water being filtered to prevent Guinea worm disease(Source: The Carter Center)

Many presidents are known for what they do in political office. For Carter, that’s not always the case. In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of efforts for peace and democracy abroad, and for his initiative to improve life in underdeveloped countries.

“We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make the changes. And we must,” President Carter said in his 2002 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Guinea worm is usually contracted when people or animals drink unfiltered, dirty water.

Getting the case numbers of the disease down initially, as park ranger Jacob Ross says, was a mostly simple process and about education. Thousands of “LifeStraws” have been distributed to African and Asian nations so people can drink straight out of rivers and creeks. Cloths can also help filter the parasitic eggs out from the water.

Photo of a Guinea worm next to a child's leg.
Photo of a Guinea worm next to a child's leg.

According to the Carter Center, the process of official eradication is difficult since there is no vaccine. Stopping bad drinking habits in the remotest areas can be hard. Although there are 13 known cases in humans, there are still hundreds in animals in several African countries. Those cases are hard to track and hard to contain.

Smallpox remains the only officially eradicated disease. However, eradicating Guinea worm disease is nearly there too.