Jimmy Carter: 'I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do'

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and it’s The World. Jimmy Carter has done a lot in his 90 years, but when the former president spoke movingly yesterday about starting treatment for melanoma, he said, “I would like the last guinea worm to die before I do.” That’s not such a strange wish for a man whose organization, The Carter Center, has almost exceeded in eradicating guinea worm. It’s a horrible disease that many in the West have had the great fortune of never encountering. David Baron went on assignment for The World back in 2010 to South Sudan, where he interviewed Jimmy Carter about eliminating guinea worm. David, first of all, just remind us just what guinea worm is and how awful it is.


David Baron: It is about the most awful thing you can imagine in terms of a non-fatal ailment. It’s a parasitic disease and you know you’ve got it when at some point you develop a blister on your skin on your leg or your arm, and it’s a burning blister and soon what emerges is a worm, and it’s a worm that eventually, as it comes out, could be three-feet-long. It looks like a long strand of angel hair pasta and it’s excruciatingly painful as it comes out. And the way it’s transmitted is through drinking water. The worm, when it comes out, you’ve got that burning blister, your instinct is to want to immerse the skin in water. Well, when you do that, the worm puts out thousands and thousands of larvae that infects the drinking water. If anyone drinks the water, it gets into their system and a year later they develop a blister and out comes another worm.


Werman: It’s just terrible. I saw it myself in Mali, and the people were winding the worms like a little fishing lines on these pencils, because if they break then it gets infected and it’s just a mess. It’s preventable, and pretty easily preventable though, isn’t it?


Baron: It is easily preventable, but you have to make sure that everyone does the right thing every time or the cycle of transmission occurs again. And so, what the Carter Center has been doing--and mind you, this is an eradication program without any vaccine, without any drug, without any cure, it’s purely preventative--the Carter Center has been distributing millions of water filters to people in affected areas and making sure that if anyone is going to drink from surface water that might be infected, that they filter the water first before they drink it. The other part of the program is to identify anyone who has guinea worm, so as soon as the worm emerges, that person can be treated.


Werman: And once you have it, it is possible to get rid of it, right?


Baron: Well, you have a one-year cycle. You get infected, it grows in your body, and then it comes out. And once it comes out, then it’s left your body, unless you get reinfected.


Werman: How’s the progress been on eradication thanks to the Carter Center?


Baron: Oh, it’s been astonishing. When the program started in the mid-’80s, there were an estimated three and a half million cases in over 20 countries around the world. The latest figure last year, there were 126 cases for the entire year in just four countries, all in Africa. It’s Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and South Sudan.


Werman: What prompted Jimmy Carter to make such a commitment to eradicating guinea worm?


Baron: Well, he had a personal experience with it, like you did, in West Africa. He told me, when I met up with him, about being in Ghana and seeing a young woman who was cradling her breast. He thought she was nursing a child and he went over to the woman, he wanted to meet the child, and when he got to her he realized that, in fact, she was in excruciating pain and there was a worm emerging from her breast. And, as he told me, it eventually turned out she had eleven worms emerging from her body. Just the human suffering of a disease that could be eradicated. Part of the reason he took this on is because of the possibility. There are very few diseases one can even imagine eradicating. But guinea worm, it was possible, if one just put the effort and the money into it, and he decided to do it.


Werman: Our old friend David Baron is a science writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks for telling us about what Jimmy Carter has done to combat guinea worm, David. Appreciate it.


Baron: My pleasure, Marco.