Jimmy Carter took great pride in pointing out that the United States didn’t start any new wars during his term as president. But after he left office, he launched a war against “neglected” diseases — diseases in far-off lands that most Americans will never suffer from and may not have even heard of. Diseases like lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, river blindness, schistosomiasis … and a disease caused by a nasty little bug called a Guinea worm.
Guinea worms are spread through contaminated drinking water and eating undercooked fish. The female worms, which can be up to 3 feet long once mature, cause incredibly painful, open blisters usually on the infected person’s lower legs and feet — through which the worms emerge. It can take a toll for weeks or months, and sometimes permanently, leaving some people unable to support a family.
If someone with Guinea worm has contact with water — perhaps to cool the burning pain caused by a worm’s emergence — the worm may release tens of thousands of baby worms, contaminating the whole body of water.
The effort to end this disease did not rely on high-tech methods. “Guinea worm disease has no cure, no vaccination, basically the entire eradication effort is built on behavior change,” said Kelly Callahan, a public health worker who spent years fighting Guinea worm disease in southern Sudan with the Carter Center, the ch …