Guinea worm, pack your bags.
The world recorded only 148 cases of Guinea worm last year, the Carter Center said Thursday. That’s nearly three-quarters less than in 2012, and a tiny fraction compared to the 3.5 million cases back in 1986.
"That’s very exciting because the number of cases at the end of 2013 are much lower than they were in 2012," says Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, who directs the Guinea worm eradication efforts at the Carter Center.
In fact, the steep decline in Guinea worm cases puts the parasite ahead of polio in the race toward eradication.
Back in 2012, polio looked like it was on track to be the second human disease after smallpox to be eradicated from the planet. Polio cases were at an all-time low, only about 200 infections worldwide. And aid agencies had invested billions of dollars to vaccinate kids around the world against the virus.
But the fight against polio suffered major setbacks in 2013.
Global cases nearly doubled to 400. War and violence brought the virus back into two countries where it had already been eradicated: Syria and Somalia.
So while polio surged in 2013, Guinea worm cases continued to drop. And now eradication of the parasite seems more reachable than ever.
Since 1991, the number of countries endemic for Guinea worm dropped from 21 to four: South Sudan, Chad, Mali and Ethiopia. And cases have plummeted from millions to a few hundred.
Since 1991, the number of countries endemic for Guinea worm dropped from 21 to four: South Sudan, Chad, Mali and Ethiopia. And cases have plummeted from millions to a few hundred. (You can watch an animation of the eradication progress here.)
But, as with polio, war will be an obstacle to wiping out Guinea worm. Three quarters of the infections reported last year occurred in South Sudan, where fighting broke out a month ago.
"When the conflict flared up in December, the conditions were so uncertain in South Sudan that the only decision we could make was to remove the Carter Center’s expatriate staff out from South Sudan," Ruiz-Tiben tells Shots. "So the Guinea worm program was interrupted there."
Top: A Guinea worm slowly emerges from the blister in the skin and is wrapped around a moist gauze. The process is very painful and takes weeks for the worm — up to 3 feet long — to fully come out.
Bottom: Nakal, a young girl in the Eastern Equatoria state of South Sudan, endures the pain as a health worker coax the Guinea worm from a blister in her leg.
Both photos by Louise Gubb for The Carter Center