Wiping Out Guinea Worm 

Two young girls read a story book together.
Credit: The Carter Center/L. Gubb. Sadia Mesuna (right) and her friend, Fatawu Yakubu, look at a children's book on Guinea worm disease. The cover shows a woman immersing her foot, with a Guinea worm emerging from it, in the communal water source to get relief from the burning pain. As infective larvae shoot from the worm, a little girl runs to stop her.

To date, smallpox is still the only human disease that has been completely eradicated. The only remaining virus is frozen in biohazard labs. Eliminating smallpox took a decades-long global effort. Guinea worm disease, after years and years of steady work and education, is on the brink of becoming the second human infection to go extinct. Just this January, the World Health Organization declared the African nation of Ghana free of the disease.

"Eradication of a disease from the world, because it's only happened once, creates lots of positive momentum and the belief that it can happen again," said Jim Niquette, a former Ghana-based representative for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's Carter Center, which has made the fight against Guinea worm disease a priority. "It gives the world a sense of confidence that with enough effort, enough persistence, enough care, things can get accomplished."

Formally known as dracunculiasis (Latin for "affliction with little dragons"), this debilitating parasitic infection affected an estimated 3.5 million people a year across Asia and Africa in 1986. As of May 2015, that number is down to just 4* cases—a reduction of more than 99.99 percent. Once considered a neglected disease, it's on track to being the first parasitic disease to be eradicated—and the first to be eliminated without the use of a vaccine or medicine.

How? It's simple: safe water.

Guinea worm disease is contracted by drinking water from rain ponds contaminated with Guinea worm larvae. In the rural areas of Asia and Africa where the disease has thrived, such ponds are often the only source of water for a village.

Once ingested, the larvae develop into three-foot-long worms. After a year of incubation, the worms slowly emerge through the skin via painful blisters. These blisters and subsequent infections incapacitate people for long stretches of time, preventing them from working, going to school and caring for themselves or their children.

The nonprofit Carter Center has worked tirelessly over three decades to wipe out this ancient disease. Starting in 1989, DuPont helped The Carter Center by leading a Guinea Worm filter development project in partnership with Precision Fabrics Group to prevent passage of the water flea that harbors the infective stage of the immature Guinea worm into drinking water. After researching more than 30 different man-made fibers, DuPont donated millions of square meters of an ultra-fine 30-denier nylon monofilament fiber because of its superior quality and rigid stability. Precision Fabric Group wove this innovative, washable fiber into a cloth with a pore size of 100 micrometers or less. Designed to withstand the climate of the tropics, this was the first time this type of filtration was woven in the U.S.

The contribution of 1.4 million filters in the first year of this partnership marks the beginning of an era of public-private partnerships that, as President Carter said then, "have demonstrated a new brand of global corporate citizenship." These products facilitated the 53% decline in cases between 1989 and 1991. DuPont set out then, and continues to be, a company dedicated to sustainability and innovation.

There is no drug to treat Guinea worm disease. The Carter Center's eradication strategy is centered on community-based interventions to educate and change behavior, such as teaching people to filter all drinking water and preventing transmission by keeping anyone with an emerging worm from entering water sources. According to The Carter Center, the campaign has also helped establish thousands of village-based health delivery systems that provide health education and interventions to prevent other diseases as well.

Through grassroots education, collaboration and innovation across international governments and industries, the Guinea worm eradication campaign has averted at least 80 million cases among the world's poorest and most neglected people. And a day of zero cases is within sight.