A US President and local heroes on the brink of beating one of the world’s worst diseases

Screened on Al Jazeera English – Lifelines on 8 May 2014: ‘How To Slay A Dragon’ profiles the steady elimination of Guinea worm in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, where almost all of the last 148 cases are found.

Guinea worm is expected to become the second human disease ever eradicated, with Nigeria and Ghana already free of the parasite. Smallpox was eradicated in 1979, so this would be the first eradication in 35 years, although polio is also close.

Through The Carter Center, former US president Jimmy Carter has been working to eradicate Guinea worm since 1986.

“This was a terrible vacuum in the health care for literally millions of people,” says Carter. “We decided that we would take it on as a project not knowing the extent of it, not knowing where it was, and not knowing at that time how to address the problem.”

The Carter Centre discovered 3.5 million cases occurring every year among some of the world’s most remote people, in Pakistan, India and Yemen, but especially across Sub-Saharan Africa.

A victim may ingest Guinea worm larvae through drinking unsafe water. Once inside, a fertilized female worm can grow up to a metre and will seek to burst through skin to release larvae back into the water source, causing intense pain for the victim.

Over three decades, Guinea worm was eliminated village by village, country by country, until South Sudan is now the final frontier. But in one of the poorest regions in the world, plagued by civil war, lacking basic infrastructure, and with a population on the move, challenges remain.

“To stand out in the world as the only country with almost all the cases you have in the world, it is a burden,” says Makoy Samuel Yibi from South Sudan’s Ministry of Health. “It is a huge responsibility.”

“This [South Sudan] is where it’s going to end,” says parasitologist Dr. Mark Siddall from The American Museum of Natural History in New York. “These are the people who are going to solve this problem once and for all, just like the Nigerians solved it in Nigeria and the Ghanaians solved it in Ghana. To see how we have a community of people coming together to interrupt the parasite lifecycle and solve it without vaccines, without drugs, it’s just fascinating and really uplifting, to see humanity be able to accomplish this across such a huge geography and cultural diversity.”

“I’m 89 years old now,” says Carter. “I’m still in good health. We know every person on earth who now has Guinea worm, so I think I can see now the hope that we’ll be rid of Guinea worm during my lifetime.”

The fifth documentary in a groundbreaking eight-part series, Lifelines: How To Slay A Dragon is now available on the Al Jazeera English website and on Youtube. It’s directed by South African Clifford Bestall, a Grierson, Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker.

Lifelines: The Quest for Global Health highlights the work of inspiring Africans on the frontline of public health. The groundbreaking eight-part series is filmed up close as these health heroes forge dramatic breakthroughs while tackling nine of the worst diseases and conditions that afflict poor people: Guinea worm, leprosy, malaria, maternal and neonatal mortality, polio, rabies, river blindness, schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia or snail fever), and trachoma.

For more information on the series, visit http://aje.me/lifelines or follow Lifelines on Facebook at facebook.com/AJlifelines or on Twitter at @AJlifelines using #healthheroes to be part of the discussion.

Kevin Kriedemann

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