Interview with President Jimmy Carter: Guinea Worm Disease


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Female Speaker 1: In celebration of the reopening of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the former president's 85th birthday, we sat down with Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter to talk about the highlights of his presidency and his hopes for the Carter Center.

Female Speaker 2: Well, thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you today. We're so excited to ask you many questions because you've been so active in your post presidency, and there's so many things we want to know, but the one we're most curious about is your work with Guinea worm disease. We know that this remarkable project is the effort to eradicate it, and we're wondering why you picked that as a cause.

President Carter: The Carter Center's basic premise is to deal with things that no one else wants to touch or that are so difficult that nobody thinks they should be successful, and Guinea worm challenge fulfilled both those requirements. We found Guinea worm in 23,600 of the most isolated villages on earth that didn't have an aspect of running water and no wells, but just got their drinking water out of what we would call a mud hole that filled up during the rainy season and then dried out. Within that stagnant water, the Guinea worm eggs breed. And when people drink the water, which they have to do, they don't have any other source, the egg goes into the human body and 12 months later, it evolves into a worm about 30 inches long. It stings the inside of the epidermis or skin and makes a horrendous sore that's so big it destroys muscles. As the Guinea worm egg emerges, the female, if the people wade out into the water to get another drink of water or to ease the pain, then the Guinea worm lays hundreds of thousands of new eggs. So, that's the process. And we have been in all 23,600 villages in I think 21 nations, three in Asia and the rest of them in Africa, to teach the local villagers what causes the disease and how to prevent its repetition. Luckily, Guinea worm has to go through the human body each year. It can't survive by going through goats or cattle or sheep. It has to go through a human body, so if we can teach the humans how to interrupt that cycle by never wading out into the water when you have Guinea worm coming out of your body or by filtering the water through a very fine permanent mesh filter cloth, then if they do that for a while year in an entire village, then Guinea worm is gone forever. We hope and expect that we'll soon have Guinea worm completely eradicated from the face of the earth. I had a report yesterday, and they've only found 1,400 cases of Guinea worm in all the world compared to 3.6 million cases when we first started.

Female Speaker 2: What a major accomplishment.

President Carter: So, now we now every case of Guinea worm that exists, and we're trying very hard to contain those cases and to make sure that the people that have Guinea worm don't spread it on for the next generation.

Female Speaker 2: And I'm wondering, because Guinea worm is mentioned in ancient texts and even the Bible, it's obviously been around for quite a long time. Why did it take so long for someone to take this up as a cause?

President Carter: I think that it's only been in the last I'd say 30 years that people have known for sure what caused Guinea worm, the cycle of it that I've already described. Also, the people that have Guinea worm were so widely scattered. Quite often, they were in tiny little villages at the end of a road or end of a trail, and the only way you get there is by walking down a narrow trail. So, it was just an almost insurmountable problem to go to every village in a country and make sure you had 100 percent of the people acquainted with how to get rid of it. But we decided to undertake that, and we've had a lot of help, of course, along the way. We've now been successful. Sometimes, it was not easy in a village because the witch doctors, I'll say, made a living treating Guinea worm cases. They didn't want their living interrupted by having Guinea worm eradicated. Then, they would tell the chief of the village that the Carter Center was just lying to the folks, that it wasn't the fault of their beautiful little pond where they got their water. If it hadn't been for the pond, the village wouldn't have been there. Their ancestors wouldn't have lived, and so they looked upon the village pond where the Guinea worm came from as sacred, and we were violating their religious beliefs by going in and helping. So, we've had to overcome those kinds of impediments, and sometimes the Guinea worm has existed in places in the country that had a civil war going on. Or sometimes, nomads would go from one village to another during the agricultural season, and we could eliminate the Guinea worm in one village, and then new agricultural workers would come in that had Guinea worm, and they would wade out into the water and start it all over again. So, we've had to overcome all those kinds of problems, but we've done it successfully.

Announcer: Be sure to tune in every Wednesday in September for more of our interview with President Carter. To learn more about the Carter Center and its mission of waging peace, fighting disease and building hope, visit www.cartercenter.org. And as always, for more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com.