The presence of the parasitic worm that has plagued residents of Guinea since the 1980s and before is nearing the end of its reign. The prolific spread of the worm has been contained to 2 confirmed and 2 suspected cases in Chad and Ethiopia. If these cases of the worm are eliminated, the Guinea worm will be the second disease in human history after Smallpox to be eradicated.
What is the Guinea Worm?
The Guinea Worm Disease (GWD), characterized by infection by a Guinea worm, is also called Dracunculiasis. It is known colloquially as the fiery serpent. The worm, once it enters the body, moves throughout subcutaneous tissue, usually in search of a place to exit the body in the lower leg.
It consumes tissue and grows in the body as it moves, causing pain localized to its location of movement. The pain continues once the worm reaches its destination, where it begins to travel to the outer layers of the skin. The body responds by allergic reaction that causes searing pain at the site of the blister formed by the exiting worm.
Localized pain is accompanied by immune system responses and symptoms that include fever, nausea, and vomiting. These can be exacerbated by allergic reactions, but will subside once the blister opens. The worm can be manually removed from an open blister to complete the healing process.
How Does the Guinea Worm Spread?
The burning sensation caused by the movement and consumption of tissue of the Guinea worm causes most sufferers to seek relief by planting their lesions in cool water. While the worm has exposure to water, it releases Guinea worm larva into the stream.
Those who consume water from the stream swallow the Guinea worm larva, and those that survive are able to make a new home in a fresh host and begin the cycle again.
Is There a Cure for Guinea Worm?
The short answer is no, there is no cure for Guinea Worm Disease. The worm has to be extracted manually since it cannot be killed in the body without harming the host. Once infected, the host has to wait for a blister to form and for the worm to begin its exit. Then, a heated knife can incise the wound and a healthcare professional can begin the extraction process.
Because disease education is limited in Guinea, African medical professionals began making concerted efforts to target and combat the Guinea worm specifically during the tail end of the 1980s. Their greatest weapon against the spread of the worm has been to teach those in infected areas how to make lifestyle changes that prevent the spread of the disease. Since dogs are also vulnerable to infection, caretakers of dogs have had to adapt their methods of care to compensate.
The results have been exceptionally positive. In 2015, there were 22 reported Guinea worm cases in the world, and that number has shrunk to just 2 as of June 2016. If the suspected cases are also handled with care, the disease could be completely eradicated by the close of 2016.
Perhaps most intriguing is that the Guinea worm disease has been part of recorded history for thousands of years. Calcified Guinea worms have been discovered in Egyptian mummies, and some scholars believe that mentions of fiery serpents in the Bible's Old Testament could be that of the Guinea worm.
Should Guinea Worm Disease be eradicated, the success of the eradication campaign over the last 3 decades may provide incredible leverage for the pooling of resources to eliminate other endemic diseases and could have an incredible impact on world health and the environment.