While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, another disease may disappear. In 2021, there were only 14 cases of infection with the guinea worm – a parasite that causes painful skin lesions.
This is the lowest number of infections detected in more than 20 countries in the 1980s, infecting 3.5 million people a year (see Output) – however, the reservoir for the parasite left in the animal means that eradication maybe for a while if that’s really possible, some scientists say.
“It’s pretty weird,” says Adam Weiss, director of the Carter Center Guinea Worm Elimination Program, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. The center announced the figures in late January. “Fourteen people on a planet of almost eight billion. It’s unbelievable to think about it. “
The reduction – by almost 50% from the 27 cases reported in 2020 – is the result of nearly 40 years of efforts by international organizations and national governments to rid the world of the Guinea worm, Weiss says. If successful, the disease will join smallpox and plague of cattle (a virus that mainly infects cattle and buffaloes) as the only diseases that have been purposefully eradicated in human history.
This progress is “remarkable,” says Julie Swan, a disease modeler at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, especially given that there is no recognized treatment or vaccine against the parasite. Instead, she said, liquidation companies are focused on preventing the transfer.
Track and eliminate
Humans and some animals, including cats, dogs and baboons, become infected with the guinea worm when drinking water contaminated with its larvae. After spending a year growing inside the host, the parasite, which can reach a length of one meter, penetrates the skin of the host and waits for contact with water to release the larvae. The worm’s shoots are painful and can last up to six weeks, sometimes preventing people from working or even walking.
But the cognitive nature of Guinea worm disease also makes it easy to detect the parasite. In Chad, where 7 out of 14 cases were reported last year, field agents are setting up a network to track contaminated water sources, said Philip Thindebet Wauku, coordinator of the national program to eliminate guinea worms in N’Djamena. They then do not allow people to drink contaminated water and use pesticides to disinfect it.
Similar approaches have been used in countries such as South Sudan, Mali and Ethiopia, where 7 cases remain identified in 2021. These techniques reduce the number of cases, Wac says, and can be used to fight other endemic diseases.
But Swan is not entirely convinced that eradication is possible: she says it is difficult to control diseases that have animal reservoirs, noting that in Chad alone, 790 cases of guinea worm infections in dogs were reported last year.
But in 2021, animal cases have also fallen by 45%, and Weiss remains optimistic that eradication is within reach. He says animal eradication programs are fighting animal ponds by tying dogs to curb the spread of the parasite. Weiss adds that baboons are likely to be infected with the guinea worm from water contaminated with dogs, so fighting the parasite in dogs can help curb its spread in the wild.
“I absolutely believe that the Guinea worm can be eradicated,” he said. “It will take more work, but if we couldn’t do it, I would be the first to say it.”
Currently, the International Task Force on Disease Eradication has eight diseases identified as potentially eradicable. In addition to guinea, it is polio, mumps, rubella, lymphatic filariasis, cysticercosis, measles, tapeworm.
This article is reproduced with permission and has been first published February 11, 2022.
Guinea is approaching eradication
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