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The guinea worm: the world's happiest extinction

We're on track to eliminate this animal, and people couldn't be happier

 

If current trends continue, the guinea worm will be the first parasitic disease to be eradicated in human history. This horrific parasitic worm has a long history of human suffering. Among other odd facts, it is most likely the source of the Aesculapius, the common symbol for "doctor" which shows two snakes entwined around a staff. 
 
This depicts the standard treatment for guinea worm infestation in the ancient world. And sadly, the treatment has not changed today. With all of our amazing medical advancements, the only way to get a guinea worm out of your body is to pull it out and wind it around a stick, a millimeter at a time, over the course of several weeks. It's not snakes twining around the medical staff: it's parasitic worms.
 
At its height in 1986, 3.5 million people suffered from guinea worm infestations across Africa and Asia. In 2012, there were only 542 cases reported worldwide. It's an amazing decline, and it's due largely to the efforts of former president Jimmy Carter, and the humble water filter. If we can keep the pace going, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the guinea worm will be eliminated within a few years.
 
This may be the worst disease that is easiest to prevent. Guinea worms are spread by tiny creatures called water fleas. When a human drinks unfiltered water and ingests an infected water flea, it dissolves in the stomach leaving the embryonic guinea worms to drill out through the intestines. 
 
The guinea worm then sets up shop in the connective tissue and muscles of the leg, where they can grow up to four feet long. The head of the guinea worm emerges through a painful blister. The pain of the blister is relieved by bathing it in fresh water. When the worm senses that it is under water, it releases more larvae, and the cycle continues. If the worm feels threatened it retracts back into the body, which is why it must be pulled out with excruciating slowness, day after day.
 
But as far as protozoa go, the water flea is actually pretty large. It can easily be filtered out of drinking water using a square of dense cloth. And that's where Jimmy Carter's Carter Center comes into play: in 1986 the organization committed to eradicating this disease. Representatives traveled worldwide, identifying infected ponds, handing out water filters, and teaching infected people to keep their worm-infested limbs out of the water. 
 
If the Carter Center succeeds, it will be only the second disease to be eradicated, after smallpox. And good riddance!