Good news on guinea worm eradication

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Nigeria’s health authorities recently disclosed cheering news on the eradication of guinea worm disease in the country. They expressed the hope   that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will certify the country free of the ailment before the end of this year.

Reports emanating from the Federal Ministry of Health indicate that there has been no confirmed case of the disease in the country since 2009. Data on the scourge showed that while there were 653,000 confirmed cases at the commencement of the Guinea Worm Disease (GWD) eradication campaign in 1987, only 38 cases were reported in 2008, and none at all since 2009, which is four years ago.

Former Minister of State for Health, Muhammad Ali Pate, who confirmed the good news, was expectedly upbeat regarding the remarkable achievement. He was quoted as saying: “the fact that we have gone from over 600,000 cases of guinea worm disease to zero means that it can be eradicated… it gives us confidence that polio will be eradicated in Nigeria.”

Pate explained that the eradication efforts were buoyed by the National Guinea Worm Eradication Programme (NIGEP), which focused on surveillance, integrating guinea worm watch into other immunisation programmes, and conscious efforts to improve water and sanitation in the 5,879 affected villages identified by NIGEP in 1998.

The head of the National Certification Committee on Guinea Worm Control, which has monitored local efforts to ensure that the country is declared and certified as guinea worm-free, Prof. Olukayode Oyediran, has confirmed that a team from WHO is expected to visit the country to kick-start Nigeria’s certification and will confirm whether the country has to retain a strong surveillance system to ensure that any possible case is caught and reported early.

According to medical experts, guinea worm is a large nematode, dracunculus medinensis, which is ingested through drinking contaminated water. Infestation with the worm is known as dracunculiasis or guinea worm disease. The worm causes a debilitating and painful infection that begins with a blister, normally on the leg and when erupted, the infected person may experience itching, fever, swelling, severe pain and a burning sensation. Infected people often relieve the pain by immersing the infected part in water. When immersed in open water sources such as ponds, the worm emerges and releases thousands of larvae that infect those that drink the water.

Available statistics show that guinea worm disease was widespread at the beginning of the 20th century in many countries in Africa and Asia. Out of the 20 countries in which it was endemic worldwide in the early 1980s, only four countries (all African) are currently reporting cases, with the highest number, (98 percent) of guinea worm transmission, occurring in newly independent South Sudan. At the inception of the NIGEP intervention, no fewer than 653,630 cases of guinea worm cases were identified in 5,879 villages in the country. Since November 2008, no case of guinea worm has been reported in the country.

It is heartwarming that the guinea worm scourge has been eradicated in the country. We commend the nation’s health authorities for the great achievement and urge them to speed up the WHO certification process. As Pate said, the lesson from this success in guinea worm eradication is that other diseases, including polio, can be wiped off the face of the earth when there are concerted efforts to do so.

Let the government ensure that this achievement is sustained by ensuring adequate potable water supply to all parts of the country, especially in those villages that have recorded cases of the disease before, so that it does not stage a comeback. Let the case of guinea worm not be like that of polio that was earlier reported eradicated in the country but later resurged.

We recognise and salute the doggedness of our health authorities and the assistance from our global partners in the eradication effort: the Jimmy Carter Foundation, the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation and others that   contributed to the worthy cause.

After the eradication of guinea worm, there is the need to take pragmatic action on polio eradication as well. Nigeria should strive to exit the league of countries hosting the world’s most debilitating diseases. It is time for our health authorities to wage a relentless war against all infectious diseases in the country.


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