African Nomads Help Conquer Guinea Worm Disease

ALEK, Sudan-When the Tuaregs in northwest Africa began drinking their water through filtered straws, former President Jimmy Carter took notice. The Tuaregs devised their own method of protecting their nomadic tribe from a centuries old African plague-guinea worm disease.

The Carter Center, founded by President Jimmy Carter, has been working in Africa to obliterate the disease that leaves yard length worms to writhe and cause havoc in human hosts. Sudan has the worst problem with the disease worldwide because the country is often wrought by drought. This leaves people searching for water in any area available, including puddles contaminated by Cyclops fleas.

Sudanese nomads drink from the puddles, not realizing the fleas they are ingesting are hosts to guinea worm. The flea is quick to pass the unwanted guest to its new human host.

The worm larvae are then released in the human stomach and begin to grow and mate in the abdomen. The male dies, but the female worm works her way around the human body becoming an average of three feet long during the year-long process. After she has reached her full length, she works her way to the skin's surface to lay eggs.

The worms, which are called fiery serpents, cause incredible burning when they try to emerge from under the skin. They actually release a toxin to get out of the skin and usually work their way out through the bottom of the foot or under the neck of the human host.

There is no limit on how many guinea worms one person can have. The world record is 64. There is also no telling how long this disease has plagued people either. Guinea worms have been found in 3,000 year-old Egyptian mummies.

When the worm is living in the body, it causes little to no pain or problem. It is when the parasite tries to escape that it causes pain and suffering. In addition, the removal process is tedious and archaic. It takes weeks to slowly roll the guinea worm out of the skin by coiling it on a small stick. On average, one inch of the worm is removed each day. This technique is the only way to get the worm out of the body.

The Carter Center works around the world on different health projects, but is focusing on guinea worm disease especially because they have found an efficient method of preventing the disease. They noticed that Tuareg nomads were cutting small pieces of filter cloth and tying them on reeds. They wore these around their necks and when they needed to drink out of a stagnant water source, they used the filter to prevent ingesting the fleas.

The Atlanta-based organization took notice and began passing out pen sized filtered straws to the Sudanese. As a result of this project and other educational methods, the rate of infections has dropped from 3.2 million in 1986 to 75,129 in 2000. Officials from the Carter Center hope to make guinea worm the second disease, behind smallpox, to be eradicated by man.

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