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Ancient Worm Disease Could Be Eradicated Within Two Years, UN Agency Reports

Guinea worm, an ancient parasitic disease causing tennis-ball-size ulcers so painful that victims feel as if they are on fire, could in less than two years// become the second illness after smallpox to be pushed into oblivion, thanks to water treatment and other preventive methods, the United Nations health agency reported today.

“This is the culmination of years of effort by local and international groups to see this disease eradicated,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases Lorenzo Savioli said, noting that 12 more countries were declared ‘Guinea Worm Free’ by the International Commission for the Certification of Dracunculiasis Eradication earlier this month.

Since its creation in 1995, the Commission has certified 180 countries free of Dracunculiasis, the scientific name for the disease caused by a parasite found in Egyptian mummies and thought to be the “fiery serpent” often referred to in texts from pharaonic Egypt and Assyrian Mesopotamia.

In the early 1980s, an estimated 3 million people in more than 20 countries were infected. Today, this has dropped to about 25,000 in nine countries, and at this rate the Commission is on track to meeting its 2009 deadline for eradication worldwide, Dr. Savioli said.

Guinea worm is endemic in some villages of sub-Saharan Africa, spread through contaminated water. Its effects are crippling, with victims developing large ulcers, usually in the lower leg. The ulcers swell, at times to the size of a tennis ball, and burst, releasing a spaghetti-like worm ranging up to 0.8 metres long.

The searing pain forces people to jump into water, often the community’s only source of drinking water, where the worm releases thousands of larvae. The larvae are ingested by water fleas and the cycle begins again when a person drinks the water.

The disability is seasonal, usually re-emerging during harvest time, which is why it is often called “t he disease of the empty granary.” Due to the pain, farmers are incapacitated and unable to harvest, contributing to malnutrition in children. Children affected by the worm miss school for months at a time, hindering their educational progress. Thus the disease keeps victims imprisoned in a cycle of pain and poverty.

Low-cost preventive methods include providing safe drinking water supplies, filtering water through fine-mesh cloth and treating ponds with Abate, which kills water fleas. To contain infection, health workers clean the ulcer, gradually pulling out the worm, disinfecting and bandaging the lesion to prevent secondary bacterial infection. Infected people should be prevented from wading into water sources, and health education and social mobilization should be intensified.

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