President Jimmy Carter is close to wiping Guinea worm disease from the planet

A new exhibition highlights the Carter Center’s role in eradicating diseases worldwide
President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Donald Hopkins, Carter Center special advisor for Guinea worm eradication, at the Jimmy Carter Library Museum.

The Carter Center/Michael A. Schwarz

At a 2015 press conference discussing his cancer diagnosis, former President Jimmy Carter joked that “I’d like to see the last Guinea worm die before I do.” Now, two years later, the Carter Center has announced that they remain on the cusp of wiping the disease from the planet. If successful, the eradication campaign would make Guinea worm disease only the second disease to reach that milestone, nearly 30 years after smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

When the Carter Center first became involved with Guinea worm, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases. Yesterday, the President announced that the number of cases has dropped to just 25 in three countries: Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. This is thanks to a decades-long effort spearheaded by Carter and the Carter Center—an effort made all the more remarkable given that, unlike smallpox, there is no vaccine for Guinea worm disease, or even a medical treatment.

Though not fatal, Guinea worm disease is painful and debilitating. People contract it when they drink water contaminated with tiny organisms containing Guinea worm larvae. Those larvae turn into worms that reproduce inside the host’s body. The male worm then dies, but the female remains in the body, growing up to a meter long. After a year, the worm slowly begins to emerge from a painful sore that can develop anywhere on the skin. Yesterday, President Carter recalled the first time he traveled to a village where residents were suffering from Guinea worm disease, and he spotted a woman carrying a newborn. Upon approaching her, he realized the baby was actually her swollen breast, a worm excruciatingly emerging from her nipple.

Carter initially became aware of Guinea worm disease through physician Peter Bourne. As Governor of Georgia, Carter appointed Bourne to run the first state-wide drug treatment program, and as president he named him national drug czar. After Carter’s presidential term ended, Bourne became Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, where he conducted a study of the diseases caused by bad drinking water.

“He came to the Carter Center to give us a lecture on the subject, and explained that Guinea worm was a major, terrible disease,” President Carter said in an interview yesterday. “I saw that it fulfilled one of the basic principles that Rosalynn and I established when we put together the Carter Center, and that was filling vacuums in the world. This was a disease that needed a lot of attention, and nobody was paying much attention to it because it was so difficult to address.”

Carter spoke of the Center’s unique focus on disease eradication, a problem that he says the Carter Center is the “only place in the world” addressing. “We have the International Task Force on Disease Eradication analyzing every human illness and seeing which ones might theoretically be eliminated from any particular country, or might be eradicated from the whole world.” So far the Center has identified eight diseases that are possible candidates for eradication, and Carter predicts that Guinea worm will be followed “very quickly” by polio.

President Carter and his wife Rosalyn Carter enter the "Countdown to Zero" exhibition at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
President Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter enter the “Countdown to Zero” exhibition at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

The Carter Center/Michael A. Schwarz

“We have 25 cases of Guinea worm, and I think we have 36 cases of polio in the world. So I think we are near the closing stages,” he said. “But those last few cases are always the most difficult. [The remaining host countries] have violence, so you can’t get in to work, or people get overconfident, or the leaders of the country drop their commitment, or you have a war going on.” In the fight against Guinea worm disease, a recent surprise challenge has been an outbreak among dogs in Chad.

Still, progress continues. Though the number of cases of Guinea worm disease increased slightly from 2015 to 2016, more cases were caught early before they could spread, making the disease better contained than ever. “We’re actually accomplishing a very major goal: to get rid of it among millions of people,” said Carter.

Among the country’s increasing number of isolationists, setting out to tackle enormous, seemingly insurmountable problems in third-world countries might seem like a fool’s errand. But Carter says he wants to show people the importance of it. Coinciding with yesterday’s announcement was the opening of a new exhibition at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Countdown to Zero, which chronicles the innovative strategies that make disease eradication possible. Developed by the Natural History Center in New York, in collaboration with the Carter Center, it is a testament to the power of painstaking work and unwavering will.

“We’re trying with this exhibit to let people know about the importance of [this work],” said Carter. “Not only the importance of the disease, because it afflicts so many people horribly, but also the fact that you can do something about it.”