By Anna Diofasi, Humanitas Global
Earlier this year U.S. President Carter announced that guinea worm disease was nearing eradication. According to the latest data from the Carter Center, the number of reported cases in 2013 has decreased to 148 from 542 in 2012, with only four countries (South Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia and Chad) recording new infections. Nigeria, once responsible for half of guinea worm infections worldwide, has been certified as ‘guinea worm free’ by the WHO earlier this year.
The progress in its eradication has been especially impressive if we consider that just three decades ago guinea worm disease affected 3.5 million people a year in 20 countries worldwide. Assuming this trend continues, guinea worm disease will become the first parasitic disease, and, after smallpox, only the second human disease to be successfully eradicated.
This is great news, both from a public health perspective and for poverty reduction. Guinea worm infections can be immensely painful, often preventing those afflicted from working or attending school for months. This economic burden on millions of vulnerable families has now been lifted, with wide-ranging positive effects on nutrition, educational attainment, and income generation. As this year’s Gates Annual Letter also highlights, health aid can be a phenomenal investment.
Important challenges remain, however, on the road to complete eradication. The WHO notes that finding and containing the last remaining cases is often the most arduous stage, as they tend to occur in remote and difficult-to-access rural areas. Political conflict and insecurity is another major threat to the final stages of the eradication process.
In South Sudan, where over 70% of new infections occur, the displacement of thousands of people due to political violence is making the continued monitoring and containment of new cases increasingly difficult. The South Sudan Guinea Worm Eradication program had to suspend operations in certain regions due to security concerns, though most village volunteers and field officers remain in place to ensure that progress in eliminating the disease continues.
Eradication efforts of other debilitating diseases, such as polio, have also been hampered by conflict and violence. In Syria, polio has re-appeared after 14 years of absence as vaccination campaigns fail to reach children in many rebel-held areas of the country. Somalia, declared polio-free in 2007, has seen the diseases re-emerge in 2013 following years of conflict that has made the provision of health services extremely difficult. In most cases, however, quick response by the international community and local health authorities has ensured that the spread of new infections was halted early on.
As a result of a concentrated global effort, with the active involvement of local communities, national governments, and international organizations, the eradication of guinea worm disease is within our reach. Successful vaccination campaigns across the world are bringing us closer to eradicating a host of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases like polio, measles, and meningitis.
At the same time, deworming initiatives across Asia and Africa have improved the lives of millions of children. Political conflict and violence can put eradication efforts at risk, but through engaging local communities and international donors, challenges presented by even the most precarious situations can be overcome.