Sunday, January 17, 2016

234.2 - Good News: parasitic disease on the verge of being eliminated

Good News: parasitic disease on the verge of being eliminated

About three and a-half years ago, way back in May 2012, I wrote something about the Guinea worm.

The Guinea worm is a parasite which humans contract by drinking infested water. In a simplified version of its life-cycle, once ingested the worm burrows through the intestinal wall and slowly moves through the subcutaneous tissues until about a year later it exits the body through a swollen, painful blister, usually on the lower leg or foot. By this time the female worm has grown from a few millimeters to as much as a meter - that's about three feet - long and has hundreds of thousands of eggs.

Trying to ease the pain of the blister, the infected person puts their feet in the water - where the eggs are released, to be ingested by the next victim.

The pain involved with the blister, which is described as feeling like the area around the worm is on fire, can be crippling.

The way to remove the worm is to catch it as it starts to exit the wound and then wind it around a stick as you slowly pull it out - slowly in this case meaning very slowly: The process can take weeks to complete, leaving people to live through months of debilitating pain, making it impossible for them to tend to cows or harvest crops or otherwise provide for themselves or their families.

It's an ancient affliction. In fact, some suggest the "fiery serpents" of Numbers 21:6-9 were guinea worms. On the other hand, 21:6 says "much people of Israel died" from these "serpents" and actual deaths from Guinea worm are rare, so I tend to doubt it.

However, there is a clear reference to it in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian papyrus of herbal knowledge dating to c. 1550 BCE - interestingly just 100 years earlier than Numbers 21.

In 1986, the Carter Center, founded by Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, began a campaign to end the affliction through education about the worm's behavior and improving the availability of means to filter water so that new people don't get infected.

At that time, in 1986, the number of people affected was around 3.5 million.

In that 2012 post, I was able to report that by 2011, the number of cases was down to 1100.

Okay, so why I bring all this up now? Because now I can report that the Carter Center says that the number of cases of Guinea worm in 2015 was just 22 - a reduction, quite literally, of 99.999 percent since 1986.

There's still much to do; anyone involved knows that in any such effort the last few cases are the most difficult to get rid of. But the fact remains that the Guinea worm is on the brink of being the second disease after smallpox and the first parasitic disease to be eliminated from the human population. And there is no vaccine and no drug treatment for the condition - this has all been accomplished through improving the knowledge and the health environment of the people affected.

How's that for feel-good news.

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