The Guinea Worm Is One Of The Most Invasive And Painful Parasites On The Planet

The Guinea worm is on its way to being eradicated, but the 30-year path to get there hasn't been an easy one. Difficulty in combating this debilitating affliction has been compounded by the fact that it's difficult to know if you have Guinea worm disease, as symptoms don't appear for a year after infection. Among the diseases and parasites you can catch from water, this painful worm may be among the worst. The disease affects the poorest people in the world, mostly in rural communities in Africa without access to clean drinking water.

Through millions of dollars in private and government funding, along with substantial support from the Carter Center, Guinea worm is on its way out. The tropical parasite, which rarely terminates but often disables, involves a fertilized female worm bubbling to the top of the skin, where it bursts out - which is as painful as it sounds. Removing the worm is difficult and, again, painful. 

There is no rhyme or reason as to whom the worm affects - people of all ages, races, and gender can be affected, as anyone who drinks infected water is at risk. The pervasiveness of the Guinea Worm disease is only intensified by its recurrence, as there is no immunity, no vaccine, and no medication. The only solution? Remove the worm. The only real solution? Get clean drinking water to remote communities in Africa.

  • The Guinea Worm's Entire Lifecycle Is Painful For Those Infected

    Guinea worm disease is caused by a nematode called Dracunculus medinensis. After someone drinks water that has been infected with copepods (crustaceans that have larvae in them), the copepods perish after being ingested and larvae enter the stomach and intestines. At this point, the larvae reproduce in the stomach and intestinal wall - this is, unfortunately, also where they mature. Female worms, after they have been fertilized, head back up to the skin, creating a painful blister. These blisters are especially painful in the joints. 

    The worm is "smart" in some sense, as the painful blister becomes hot and makes the host want to put their limb in water. In water, the blister can release the female worm, who then infects water with larvae all over again. And when the blister bursts, it can release hundreds of thousands of larvae that were previously living in the body. It's not called the "fiery serpent" for nothing. And it's not just one worm, either - there can be multiple worms anywhere on the body (usually the feet or legs). 

    Removing the worm so as to not infect more water - or infect the person who has the worm - is an arduous process. The worm can break as it is being removed, thus decomposing in the body. If the wound itself becomes infected, anything from sepsis to lockjaw can occur.

  • The Parasite Only Affects The Poorest 10% Of The World

    Guinea worm only affects the poorest areas of the world - mostly areas in Africa that lack clean drinking water. In these areas, Guinea worm remains present year after year, as limited sources of water get contaminated over and over again. No one is safe from the Guinea worm, and no one develops immunity. However, some people do seem to get the worm repeatedly, while others do not; those who are farmers, herders, or otherwise leave the home to get drinking water are at a higher risk, as they are forced to drink infected water. 

    The poorest 10% of the world are the only ones who suffer from Guinea worm, and it is important to note that though Guinea worm disease is caused by poverty - not having clean water - it can also perpetuate poverty, as communities struggle to thrive when people can't work and are unhealthy. 

  • 30 Years Has Seen Amazing Progress In Eradicating The Guinea Worm

    30 Years Has Seen Amazing Progress In Eradicating The Guinea Worm
    Photo: Collegebookworm / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    As painful and debilitating as the Guinea worm can be, the good news is that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is getting closer and closer to eradicating the worm. In 1986, 20 countries were plagued with the Guinea worm, totaling about 3.5 million cases per year.

    Since then, incredible progress has been made in 30 years. Only a few countries still have Guinea worm present and, in 2016, there were as few as two reported cases.

  • Removing A Guinea Worm Can Take Weeks

    The only treatment for Guinea worm disease is to remove the worm entirely. There is no drug and no vaccine. To remove the worm, the person must immerse the blister in water, enticing the worm to leave the body. After cleaning the wound, the worm is slowly pulled out. Because the worm can be so long - approximately a meter - it can take weeks to pull a worm out of someone's body.

    Throughout the removal process, the worm is wrapped around a stick so that it doesn't wiggle back into the body. After the worm is fully removed (it is especially important not to break any of the worm off in the body), the final step is to make sure the wound does not become infected and create further problems. 

  • There Are No Symptoms For A Year After Infection

    Part of what makes a Guinea worm so hard to target and eradicate is that someone who drinks infected water doesn't show symptoms of the worm until a year later. The life cycle of the worm is such that it takes one year for the female worm to create a blister in the skin. 

    Besides the painful blister, other symptoms also emerge at the one-year point. These can include fever, rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. The blister grows for several days.

  • The Remarkable Man Who Helped Eradicate Smallpox Is Now Fighting The Guinea Worm

    Though finding Guinea worms in dogs has presented new challenges, Dr. Donald Hopkins - who helped the world eradicate smallpox - says that he is confident Guinea worm can be stopped in dogs and people. Hopkins has spent nearly 40 years of his life trying to rid the world of Guinea worms, and at 76 he doesn't show signs of slowing down. A former CDC director said: "I firmly believe this [the sustained progress in Guinea worm eradication] would not have been achieved in the absence of Don." 

    Hopkins grew up in the time of segregation, but his brilliance led him to Morehouse College on a scholarship when he was only in 10th grade. He went to Egypt while an undergrad, became fascinated with tropical diseases, and went on to start a career at the CDC in 1967. Almost immediately, Hopkins led the charge to rid Sierra Leone of smallpox when he was only 26-years-old. Hopkins implemented a widespread vaccination program that, at the time, was a new method of combating the disease. 

    Because of Hopkins's key involvement in eradicating smallpox, he was the natural choice to help rid Africa of Guinea worm as well. As one parasitologist, Mark Siddall, put it: "I can't believe it's an accident that Don was involved with both." Hopkins pushed the CDC to take Guinea worm seriously, and it's because of his pressure that the World Health Organization passed a resolution to eradicate Guinea worm in 1986. Seeing that more resources were needed, Hopkins went to the Carter Center to work on eradicating Guinea worm full-time.