GENEVA, May 19, 2011 (IPS) – The World Health Assembly could adopt landmark resolutions asking governments to improve water and sanitation to eradicate cholera and guinea worm, the latter of which exists in just four countries in Africa. While safe drinking water and toilets are the most cost-effective public health measures, they have not been a priority for most developing countries.
“In 1989, when we started our programme, 180,000 people were affected by guinea worm,” Dr. Andrew Seidu Korkor, national coordinator for guinea worm at the Ghana Health Service, told IPS in a phone interview. “In 2010 we had only eight cases and today there are none. But it takes three years to get the certification that the disease is not endemic in your country any more.”
The guinea worm causes Dracunculiasis, a waterborne parasitic disease that exists in only four countries – Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia and Sudan. It lives in stagnant water. When people drink contaminated water, the parasite grows up to three feet and lives just below the skin, often crippling its human host.
There are no medicines to treat the disease or vaccines to prevent it. The only cure is to slowly, painfully extract it over days. While the disease is not lethal, its disabling effect prevents those affected from working or attending school, putting already vulnerable individuals and communities at further risk of chronic poverty.
“If potable water was provided, then guinea worm could be definitely eradicated,” Seidu Korkor continued. “But you cannot get 100 percent water supply immediately, because it is expensive and it takes time. Therefore, we also educate people on prevention measures, we look for cases and treat them, we use filters to improve the water supply and apply chemicals to kill the intermediate host.”
If completely eradicated, guinea worm would become the second disease wiped out by humankind – the first since smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s.