Guinea-worm Disease (GWD), also known as Dracunculiasis, is an infection caused by the parasite Dracunculus medinensis. The Latin term ‘dracunculiasis‘ translates to “affliction with little dragons,” and the disease was presumably given this name due to the burning sensation a patient feels before the adult worm penetrates through their skin. Death from the disease is infrequent, but affected patients are often debilitated by the pain and are thus unable to perform work until the worm is removed.
The earliest known evidence of GWD dates back to 1550 BCE, found within an ancient Egyptian collection of medical texts. The process of winding the protruding guinea worm around a stick was mentioned. Scholars also believe that the fiery serpents mentioned in the Bible in 21:6 which descended upon Israelites at the shores of the Red Sea were actually guinea worms. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a calcified guinea worm in the body of a mummy dated to 1000 BCE. It is also contended that the serpent coiled around the healing staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, is in fact a guinea worm instead of a snake. This would be a symbol of healing, as the wrapping of the worm around a stick is the safest and most common form of removal of the parasite from the human body (1).
In the 1980s, GWD was primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Pakistan. In May of 1981, the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD) proposed the elimination of the disease for the goal of the decade (1981-1990), since the disease can only be transferred through contaminated drinking water. In 1986, former POTUS Jimmy Carter joined the battle against the disease in partnership with WHO and UNICEF (2). According the the World Health Organization (WHA), Guinea-worm Disease was targeted for an eradication program because 1) It is biologically and technically feasible to eradicate the disease, and 2) The benefits of eradication outweigh the costs (3).
When the Carter Center joined forces with the IDWSSD in 1986, there were 20 countries with Dracunculiasis and about 3.5 million cases per year. Ninety percent of these cases occurred in Africa. A great deal of progress has been made within the last 3 decades. In 2015, there were only 22 reported cases of the disease, and in 2016 there were 25. In 2016, the disease occurred in only 3 countries: South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Chad. So far, in 2017, there have only been 5 reported cases of the disease, all of which were in Chad (4). Guinea-worm disease is likely to be the second parasitic disease affecting humans (after smallpox) to be globally eradicated. For more information on Guinea-worm Disease and to see the countdown, visit Cartercenter.org.