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Dracunculiasis or guinea worm disease (GWD) is a rare but serious illness that results from contamination with a specific parasite worm. This parasite, Dracunculus medinensis, is only found in a few African countries, and the disease can only be contracted when people drink standing water, like from ponds, that is contaminated with larvae of the worm. Once dracunculiasis was more widespread and affected millions of people per year in parts of Africa, but persistent education by organizations like the World Health Organization has brought these numbers down significantly. Today less than 20,000 people a year will get GWD, but world health groups are still interested in eradicating the disease completely.
The symptoms of dracunculiasis are part of the problem in getting rid of the illness. People drink contaminated water and have no symptoms until approximately a year later when a large worm has grown in their intestines. At some point, the worm migrates to the leg or foot and bursts through the skin. A painful blister or ulceration forms just as the worm breaks through, and some people have an accompanying fever.
The worm is about two to three feet (60.96-91.44 cm) in length. It cannot simply be removed by pulling it out in a single pull. Often it takes weeks to remove it, which is very painful, unless there is access to surgical treatment.
Moreover, to gain some relief, many people head to a water source and soak the foot or leg, and this sets up a vicious cycle. Anytime the worm is in water, it will deposit its larvae. A whole supply can be quickly contaminated, and those who drink contaminated water are greatly at risk for getting dracunculiasis, too.
In addition to creating a cycle of infection, dracunculiasis can cause severe problems in areas of the world where access to medical care is limited. Lesions where worms appear can become infected, and there may be no way to gain access to antibiotics. Some joint or tissue damage can also result from the worm’s migration. With medical help, surgery can be done to remove the worm, but no treatment exists prior to that, and most people don’t get any form of treatment.
Due to the complex nature of dracunculiasis, medical methods of cure aim at prevention and teaching people about how to make a water supply safe or how to choose safe drinking locations. People are encouraged to boil or filter water, or to use chemicals that can kill larvae. They are discouraged from drinking from open ponds and water supplies that are underground and not in contact with humans for activities like swimming or washing are preferred.
Presently only five countries exist where dracunculiasis still seems to be of issue. These are Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and the Sudan. It’s encouraging that cases have so reduced in frequency. Yet it’s important to note that GWD is poverty-based, directly related to the fact that people in these countries do not have access to a safe water supply.