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UK push to wipe out Guinea worm disease

Britain is backing the Carter Center in a new project that will see the end of Guinea worm within this decade

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Britain today announced it will provide major support to a new project that will make Guinea worm the second human disease to be eradicated in human history.

International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien said Britain will back a final push to wipe out the debilitating parasitic disease within this decade but insisted other donors provide much-needed additional funding.

The funding forms a vital part of the push from former US President Jimmy Carter to ensure Guinea worm is consigned to the history books alongside smallpox.

If other donors come forward to match British funding, it would also become the first disease to be eradicated without the use of a vaccine or medicine.

The waterborne infection, also known as dracunculiasis, causes agonising pain and leaves people bed-ridden for months at a time, meaning adults are unable to work and children are forced to miss school for weeks, or even months, at a time.

While the disease is usually non-fatal, the wound where the worm emerges can develop bacterial infections such as tetanus which can be life-threatening.

Great strides have been made in eliminating Guinea worm disease since The Carter Center began leading the international eradication programme in 1986 when there were approximately 3.5 million cases in 21 countries in Africa and Asia. Worldwide, the disease has been reduced by more than 99 per cent.

It has been eliminated in Nigeria, Niger and Ghana in the last two years but cases remain in South Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali, as well as an isolated outbreak in Chad, with 1,797 cases worldwide in 2010, all of which were in Africa.

There is no known cure or vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease so Britain’s support will focus on teaching people how to avoid the disease. It will help train and supervise locals to track any outbreaks and ensure that those infected did not use stagnant communal water sources such as ponds and dams.

British funding will also provide health education, ensure distribution of cloth filters for drinking water and ensure supplies of larvicide to kill the worm in the early stages of infection are sufficient in communities.

In addition to supporting the treatment and containment of Guinea worm disease, Britain helps fund the provision of clean drinking water and safe sanitation to prevent the spread of diseases like Guinea worm.

International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien said:

Guinea worm is a painful disease of poverty and afflicts the world’s poorest and most isolated communities. Families go hungry as parents are unable to work and they go without medical treatment because they cannot afford it. 

President Carter’s commitment has brought Guinea worm to the brink of eradication. It has never been a question of if we can rid the world of this ancient disease - but when. For the price of a sandwich, we can prevent someone in the developing world from catching this terrible disease.

Britain is ready to help fund the final push to eradicate this debilitating disease and we now need others to join us in taking this historic opportunity to rid the world of Guinea worm.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, founder of The Carter Center, said:

Guinea worm is a painful disease, which has horrendous consequences for sufferers in terms of their immediate health and in terms of their education and employment. It prevents people from escaping poverty.  
“I welcome the challenge laid down by the British government. The UK has shown its willingness and staying power to help eradicate this debilitating disease. I call on other donors to match their efforts.”

Read the full press release [PDF, 94Kb]

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Published 5 October 2011