Guinea Worm :: Guinea worm disease – a debilitating disease

For countless generations, people have suffered from Guinea worm disease GWD. The disease was found in Egyptian mummies and is thought to be the “fiery serpent” often referred to in texts from pharaonic Egypt and Assyrian Mesopotamia.

Guinea worm disease GWD is endemic in some villages of sub-Saharan Africa. The worm is spread through contaminated water. The effects of the disease are crippling. Its victims develop large ulcers, usually in the lower leg. The ulcers swell, at times to the size of a tennis ball, and burst, releasing a spaghetti-like parasitic worm ranging in length from 550-800 millimetres (0.5-0.8 metres).

Victims experience a pain so excruciating that they say it feels as if their leg is on fire. The searing pain compels people to jump into water, often the community’s only source of drinking water, to relieve the pain. When the infected person immerses his or her leg in the water, the worm in the leg releases thousands of larvae. The larvae are then ingested by water fleas that live in the water. Thus the cycle begins again— when people drink the water, they are in effect drinking in the disease.

The socio-economic effects of the disease are numerous. The disability caused by the disease is seasonal, usually re-emerging during the harvest season in villages, which is why it is often called “the disease of the empty granary.” As a result of the pain associated with GWD, farmers are left incapacitated and unable to harvest their crops, contributing to malnutrition in children since the primary caregivers – the infected parents – are in such physical agony that they cannot properly provide for their young. Children affected by GWD miss school for months at a time, hindering their educational growth. The disease keeps its victims imprisoned in a cycle of pain and poverty.

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