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09 Jan 2023

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is certified free of Guinea worm disease

In exciting news, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the latest country to have been certified free of transmission of Dracunculus medinensis, the parasite that causes Guinea-worm disease, by the World Health Organization (WHO) in December.

Dracunculiasis is a crippling parasitic disease, transmitted mainly when people drink stagnant water contaminated with parasite-infected water fleas. While rarely fatal, the disease is debilitating and can leave sufferers unable to function normally for months on end. It primarily affects people in rural, isolated and deprived communities.[i]

Now including DRC, the WHO has certified a total of 200 countries as free of dracunculiasis transmission worldwide. Only six countries remain afflicted by this disease – Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, South Sudan and Sudan – where it remains endemic in all but Sudan.

We can see significant progress compared with 1986, when the Global Guinea Worm Eradication Program was launched and Dracunculiasis was endemic in 21 countries in Africa and Asia. This translated to around 3.5 million cases occurring annually. Now, as of the end of Nov 2022, only 10 human instances of Guinea worm infection had been reported. This is the fewest number of annual cases ever.

The reduction—nearly a 33% drop compared with 2021—is the result of decades of effort. If successfully eradicated, Guinea worm disease will join smallpox and rinderpest (a virus that primarily afflicted cattle and buffalo) as the only diseases that have been purposely eradicated throughout human history.

There is no vaccine to prevent Guinea worm infection, and there is no medicine to treat it. The program has achieved success so far with water filters, a basic larvicide, and the surveillance of new infections through cooperation with nations and millions of individuals.

However, the last mile in the quest to eradicate a disease is complex and by far the most challenging – eradication is neither simple nor unattainable. The emergence of animal infections is one challenge, as cats, dogs, baboons and other animals can contract Guinea worm by drinking water that has been tainted with its larvae. The good news is that animal cases are also decreasing. However, to eradicate this disease, even these cases need to be tackled.

CIFF has been at the forefront of Guinea worm eradication for over a decade, working in partnership with The Carter Center to fund the global eradication program since 2012. During this period, six countries (Cote d’Ivoire, the DRC, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, and Nigeria) were certified free of Guinea-worm disease. To help get further towards full eradication, CIFF is extending its support to The Carter Center through to 2025.

A historic win for humankind and for public health is tantalisingly close. In order to build a better society free of Guinea-worm disease, it is our joint responsibility as humans to completely eradicate the disease from the planet.

 

* Image shows two villagers using pipe filters at the Kuron Water Source, South Sudan. Photo credit: The Carter Center/Catalin Marin (2019)

[i] https://www.who.int/news/item/15-12-2022-the-democratic-republic-of-the-congo-certified-free-of-dracunculiasis-transmission-by-who