What is Guinea Worm Disease?

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  • Written By: Susan Grindstaff
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Guinea worm disease, also called dracunculiasis, is a parasitic infestation. It is caused by microscopic parasites that live in the bodies of certain types of water fleas. People become infected by drinking water that contains the fleas. The parasite grows into a worm that travels from the intestines and eventually erupts through the skin. The worms typically migrate to arms, legs, or feet, but can appear on any area of the body.

Water fleas that contain the parasite that can lead to guinea worm disease are found in remote locations in Africa, India, and parts of Asia. In 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a serious, widespread campaign to eradicate the disease. It was aided in part by other international aid groups such as the Carter Foundations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their goal was to educate people living in villages near infested water supplies how best to avoid the disease. When the campaign first began, there were believed to be about 3.5 million cases, and as of 2008, the incidents were down to about 5,000.


Guinea worm disease is typically spread by drinking or bathing in water infested with water fleas that carry the parasite. After the parasite enters the body, it stays in the intestines until it transforms into a worm. The worm travels through the body until it gets just under the top layer of skin. There it continues to grow until it is about 3 feet (91 cm) in length, and about as big around as a noodle of spaghetti.

The process of entry to eruption typically takes about a year. Once the worm reaches full growth, it is typically easy to see right under the skin. At this point, it usually begins to be painful, and movement of the infested area may become difficult or impossible. When the worm starts to break the skin, the pain typically becomes much more severe, with full eruption sometimes taking more than ten days to complete.

The people who are at risk of guinea worm disease frequently live in poverty-stricken rural areas that do not have clean drinking water available. The risk of contracting the disease is at its highest during the rainy season, because that is typically when the worms begin to migrate. People who are infested may also bathe in the drinking water, which adds to the problem.

There is no known treatment for guinea worm disease other than prevention. Filtering or boiling drinking water has proven to be the best method, in addition to educating people who are at risk in ways to avoid the disease. Complications that could develop from infestation are secondary infections and possible paralysis.


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