Jimmy Carter and the guinea worm

Those of us who were born before 1972 probably bear the mark of our childhood smallpox vaccination. The round, crater-like scar on our upper arms are the reminder of one of the most successful public health campaigns in the world. In 1977 the disease of smallpox was declared cured by the World Health Organization. Today only military personnel and others working in war zones are vaccinated as a precaution against smallpox being used as germ warfare. Vaccinations, quarantines and an understanding of how the disease was spread has eliminated the illness that killed whole families and devastated entire communities.

Smallpox could be eliminated because the disease has some characteristics which makes it curable. The disease does not have any animal carriers so vaccinations and isolation have made it possible to end the active virus’s ability to reproduce and spread.

Now, a second devastating ailment is close to being eradicated.

A guinea worm is a parasitic worm that has caused excruciating pain and disability all across Equatorial Africa. The worm’s larva are water borne and find a secondary host in water fleas. When a person drinks unfiltered water from a pond infected with guinea worm larva and water fleas, the worm larvae enter the person’s stomach. There they grow and migrate to other parts of the body. When mature they can be up to three feet long. They cause serious soft tissue injury and erupt from the skin in painful lesions. To ease the pain of these sores, people often soak their wounds in the nearest water. The same water they drink. The water stimulates the guinea worm to release thousands of larvae and the cycle continues.

Following his devastating election loss to Richard Nixon in 1980, President Jimmy Carter left Washington discouraged and defeated. He returned to Plains, Georgia and could have spent the rest of his life at ease. He, instead, established the Carter Center an organization that, according to their web site, “is guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering; it seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.” Through this organization, in collaboration with Emory University, President Carter has negotiated peace treaties, overseen democratic elections in where the right to vote is a new privilege, built houses with Habitat for Humanity and fought to improve the health of the poor around the globe.

In 1986 there were approximately 3.5 million cases of guinea worm infection in 21 countries across Africa and Asia. Today the number is estimated to be 542 provisional cases in four African countries. Guinea worm is poised to be the next disease after smallpox to be eradicated.

The solution to this problem is relatively simple. Either don’t drink dirty water with water fleas in it, or filter the water fleas out of the water using a fine mesh filter. The Carter Center has worked with other organizations and governmental agencies to educate people about the life cycle of the worm. They have provided simple filters for straining out the water fleas from drinking water and water straws, a simple device worn around the neck and used to suck water through a filter when a person is away from their home filtering system. These solutions seem to be working.

The eradication of guinea worm infections has meant thousands of Africans are able to work to feed their families, to go to school and are spared the debilitating pain of the wounds that result. The simple, inexpensive and effective technology provided by the Carter Center has made a big difference in the lives of people.

President Carter was often ridiculed by political pundits for being a naive idealist. His strong sense of morality and his religiousness was disparaged as being out of touch with Washington reality. He was characterized as being a well-meaning but ineffective politician. No one has ever accused him of illegal or immoral behavior. There has never been a sex scandal attached to his name.

President Carter’s greatest legacy may have begun after he picked himself up from his defeat in 1980. He has used the influence of a former president to bring peace, health and improved living conditions around the world. His intelligence, humility and strong ethics have served him well.

It is a common complaint of voters today that the people who are elected to public office are morally corrupt, self-serving and should all be removed from office. I continue to find it ironic that in President Carter we elected a highly moral, intelligent statesman.

How ironic that we turned him out in favor of Richard Nixon.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains