Only one infectious disease has ever been eradicated: smallpox (gone as of 1980). Soon though, a second affliction will disappear, likely around 2018, when the Guinea worm becomes extinct. This will happen thanks largely to three philanthropic interventions: the leadership of the Carter Center, a nonprofit formed by former president Jimmy Carter and Emory University; the money of the Gates Foundation, which has donated more than $100 million to the effort while inspiring matching funds from many other givers; and the donated hours of hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
A parasite transmitted by eggs borne in drinking water, the worm is an affliction that has sickened millions in Asia and Africa for millennia (its signs can be found in ancient mummies). While rarely fatal, a Guinea worm can cause intense pain as it travels through the body. It usually migrates eventually to the feet or legs, where the worm chews its way through tissue and skin to exit the body, causing blistering pain that prevents victims from walking, secondary infections, and other miseries.
There is no known curative medicine or vaccine for Guinea worm. What is eliminating this horrific affliction today is not medicine or complex technology, but aggressive canvassing by volunteers. They give out simple hand-held filtering straws, teach villagers to use them whenever drinking water so as to avoid infection, add larvicide to central water sources, and scout the countryside for disease outbreaks.
When the current campaign against Guinea worm began in 1986, there were 3.5 million new cases of the disease every year, spread across 21 countries. In all of 2014, there were only 126 reported infections, in just four countries. In total, the Guinea worm eradication effort will have cost about $375 million.
- New England Journal of Medicine report, nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1200391
- Latest Centers for Disease Control report, cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/news/