Senior UN officials give final push to eradicate guineaworm disease

With guinea-worm disease cut by 99 per cent over the past 17 years from 3.5 million sufferers to 35,000, senior United Nations officials made a symbolic visit today to a remote endemically infected village in Ghana to give a final push towards turning the incapacitating illness into the first parasitic disease ever to be eradicated. “The transmission of the disease can be stopped entirely, here in Ghana and in all remaining affected countries,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook said in the village of Dashie, where he was accompanied by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Deputy Executive Director Kul C. Gautam and former United States President Jimmy Carter. The Carter Center, WHO and UNICEF are working together with national programmes to eradicate the disease, contracted when people consume water contaminated with microscopic fleas carrying infective larvae. Inside a human’s abdomen, the larvae mature and grow, some as long as three feet. After a year, the worm slowly emerges through a painful blister in the skin, usually on the lower limbs. No preventive or healing drugs exist and suffering can only be alleviated by analgesics and antibiotic ointment to fight bacteria. Patients can remain incapacitated for months by complications – infection by more than one worm at a time; worms emerging in especially sensitive areas such as the soles of the feet; serious bacterial infection if a worm ruptures; and further infection if a dead worm is not carefully extracted. “The eradication of guinea-worm will be a major public health victory with a significant impact on children, who make up more than a third of cases worldwide,” Mr. Gautam said of the campaign, which would make this disease the first to be eradicated without vaccines or medications. Preventive measures include improving wells to provide safe water, filtering drinking water and stopping infected people entering water sources. Ghana accounted for roughly 27 per cent of the approximately 35,000 cases reported in 2003, a 48 percent increase over 2002, second only to Sudan, which has been grappling with a civil war for more than 20 years. With 13 of the 20 endemic countries free or nearly free of guinea-worm, the disease only remains in parts of Ethiopia and Uganda, West Africa and Sudan. While in Dashie, Ghana’s most endemic region 650 kilometres north of Accra, the coastal capital, the team met with guinea-worm patients, visited a water source and guinea-worm care center, and participated in health education sessions.

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