What’s dracunculiasis?

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Guinea worm disease (GWD) is caused by a parasitic worm found in stagnant water in a few African countries. Symptoms include a painful blister or ulcer, and the worm can take weeks to remove. Prevention methods include boiling or filtering water. GWD is still prevalent in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, and Sudan due to poverty and lack of access to safe water.

Dracuncholiasis or Guinea worm disease (GWD) is a rare but serious disease that results from contamination with a specific parasitic worm. This parasite, Dracunculus medinensis, is found in only a few African countries, and the disease can only be contracted when people drink stagnant water, such as that in ponds, which is contaminated by the worm larvae. Dracuuncoliasis was once more prevalent, affecting millions of people a year in parts of Africa, but persistent education from organizations like the World Health Organization has significantly reduced these numbers. Today fewer than 20,000 people a year will get GWD, but global health groups are still interested in completely eradicating the disease.

The symptoms of dracuncoliasis are part of the problem of getting rid of the disease. People drink contaminated water and don’t have symptoms until about a year later, when a large worm has grown in their intestines. At some point, the worm migrates to the leg or foot and breaks through the skin. A painful blister or ulcer forms just as the worm breaks in, and some people have a fever.

The worm is about two to three feet long (60.96-91.44 cm). It cannot be removed by simply pulling it out with a single pull. It often takes weeks to remove, which is very painful, unless there is access to surgical treatment.
Also, to get some relief, many people head to a source of water and wet their foot or leg, which creates a vicious cycle. Whenever the worm is in the water, it will deposit its larvae. An entire supply can quickly become contaminated, and even those who drink contaminated water are at great risk of contracting dracuncoliasis.

In addition to creating an infection cycle, dracuncoliasis can cause serious problems in areas of the world where access to medical care is limited. Lesions where worms appear can become infected and there may be no way to access antibiotics. Some joint or tissue damage can also result from worm migration. With the help of your doctor, surgery to remove the worm can be done, but there is no prior treatment, and most people do not receive any form of treatment.

Due to the complex nature of dracuncoliasis, medical methods of treatment focus on prevention and teach people how to secure a water supply or how to choose safe places to drink. People are encouraged to boil or filter their water or use chemicals that can kill the larvae. They are discouraged from drinking from open ponds, and underground, non-human contact water supplies are preferred for activities such as swimming or washing.

There are currently only five countries where dracunculiasis still appears to be a problem. These are Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and Sudan. It is encouraging that cases are so low in frequency. However, it is important to note that GWD is based on poverty, which is directly linked to the fact that people in these countries lack access to a safe water supply.

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