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Jimmy Carter has had many accomplishments, but nearly eradicating Guinea worm may be his greatest

It was a problem no one would touch.

jimmy carter, guinea worm, carter center

Jimmy Carter at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California

In 2015, former president Jimmy Carter held a press conference where he laid out a goal for the rest of his time on Earth. "I would like to see Guinea worm completely eradicated before I die," Carter said. "I'd like for the last Guinea worm to die before I do. I think right now, we have 11 cases. We started out with 3.6 million cases."

Now that Carter, 98, is in hospice, spending his final days at home with his family, he probably won’t achieve his goal. But his herculean efforts at abolishing the deadly worm will be ranked among his most significant achievements as a politician and humanitarian over his extraordinary life.

When the Carter Center took the lead on an international campaign to eradicate the Guinea worm in 1986, there were 3.5 million cases in 21 countries across Africa and Asia. In 2022, only 13 cases were reported worldwide, a 99.99% decrease. If the Guinea worm disease is completely eradicated, it would only be the second eradicated human disease in history, following smallpox.


Carter and his wife celebrated a record low in cases last year.

“Rosalynn and I are pleased with this continued advance toward eradicating Guinea worm disease,” President Carter said. “Our partners, especially those in the affected villages, work with us daily to rid the world of this scourge. We are heartened that eradication can be achieved soon.”

After Carter left the White House in 1981, he went on a mission to fight “neglected” diseases in far-off places that most Americans would never have to worry about. He set his sights on conditions such as lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, river blindness, and schistosomiasis.

His former drug czar Peter Borne brought Guinea worm to his attention. Borne approached the Carter Center because no one else would touch the problem.

Guinea worm is also known as dracunculiasis which means “affliction with little dragons” in Latin. About a year after infection, the worms grow to three feet long, and the females prepare to give birth by making their way to a place right below the skin, causing painful blisters.

Eventually, the blisters burst and the mother burrows her way out, causing incredible pain.

To ease the pain, people often submerge the affected area in water, causing tens of thousands of baby worms to release in the water, where they will eventually find a host. Guinea worm can also cause fever, swelling and secondary infections like sepsis. Guinea worm causes significant hardships for families by rendering people unable to work or attend school.

“It’s an audacious and mind-boggling idea,” said Emily Staub, press liaison to health programs for the Carter Center, according to CNN. “I’m not just talking about just him. I’m talking about a whole bunch of people with the Carter Center that decided that they were going to eradicate a disease that has no vaccine, no immunity, no medication. It’s thousands of years old and has a one-year incubation. The odds are totally stacked against you. And the people that suffer from it speak thousands of different languages, and some have never had outsiders interact with them.”

jimmy carter, commonwealth club, carter center

Jimmy Carter at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California

via Wikimedia Commons

But Carter persisted, creating countless partnerships with leaders around the globe to educate people about the worm, provide tools for clean water and prevent its spread in the animal population. "Guinea worm disease has no cure, no vaccination, basically the entire eradication effort is built on behavior change,” Kelly Callahan, a public health worker who partnered with the Carter Center, told NPR.

Thirty-seven years after the Carter Center started on the audacious task of eradicating Guinea worm, the WHO has certified that 200 countries are free of the disease, meaning they've had zero instances of transmission in three years. Only six countries have yet to be certified as disease-free.

Jimmy Carter set a nearly impossible task, but with dogged persistence and the ability to make partnerships with people worldwide, many of whom have had little contact with the outside, he has helped save millions upon millions of people from incredible suffering.

In the coming days, people will celebrate many of Carter’s accomplishments. Let’s be sure that no one forgets to mention a success he’d rank among his proudest.

“We were traveling in a big motorcade,” he said in 2017. “We were driving along, and elementary school children had a big sign that says, ‘Watch out, Guinea worm. Here comes Jimmy Carter.’ That was almost as good as a Nobel Prize for me.”

Planet

Easy (and free!) ways to save the ocean

The ocean is the heart of our planet. It needs our help to be healthy.

Ocean Wise

Volunteers at a local shoreline cleanup

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The ocean covers over 71% of the Earth’s surface and serves as our planet’s heart. Ocean currents circulate vital heat, moisture, and nutrients around the globe to influence and regulate our climate, similar to the human circulatory system. Cool, right?

Our ocean systems provide us with everything from fresh oxygen to fresh food. We need it to survive and thrive—and when the ocean struggles to function healthfully, the whole world is affected.

Pollution, overfishing, and climate change are the three biggest challenges preventing the ocean from doing its job, and it needs our help now more than ever. Humans created the problem; now humans are responsible for solving it.

#BeOceanWise is a global rallying cry to do what you can for the ocean, because we need the ocean and the ocean needs us. If you’re wondering how—or if—you can make a difference, the answer is a resounding YES. There are a myriad of ways you can help, even if you don’t live near a body of water. For example, you can focus on reducing the amount of plastic you purchase for yourself or your family.

Another easy way to help clean up our oceans is to be aware of what’s known as the “dirty dozen.” Every year, scientists release an updated list of the most-found litter scattered along shorelines. The biggest culprit? Single-use beverage and food items such as foam cups, straws, bottle caps, and cigarette butts. If you can’t cut single-use plastic out of your life completely, we understand. Just make sure to correctly recycle plastic when you are finished using it. A staggering 3 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans annually. Imagine the difference we could make if everyone recycled!

The 2022 "Dirty Dozen" ListOcean Wise

If you live near a shoreline, help clean it up! Organize or join an effort to take action and make a positive impact in your community alongside your friends, family, or colleagues. You can also tag @oceanwise on social if you spot a beach that needs some love. The location will be added to Ocean Wise’s system so you can submit data on the litter found during future Shoreline Cleanups. This data helps Ocean Wise work with businesses and governments to stop plastic pollution at its source. In Canada, Ocean Wise data helped inform a federal ban on unnecessary single-use plastics. Small but important actions like these greatly help reduce the litter that ends up in our ocean.

Ocean Wise, a conservation organization on a mission to restore and protect our oceans, is focused on empowering and educating everyone from individuals to governments on how to protect our waters. They are making conservation happen through five big initiatives: monitoring and protecting whales, fighting climate change and restoring biodiversity, innovating for a plastic-free ocean, protecting and restoring fish stocks, and finally, educating and empowering youth. The non-profit believes that in order to rebuild a resilient and vibrant ocean within the next ten years, everyone needs to take action.

Become an Ocean Wise ally and share your knowledge with others. The more people who know how badly the ocean needs our help, the better! Now is a great time to commit to being a part of something bigger and get our oceans healthy again.

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