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The Guinea Worm

by Tim O'Hearn

Due to the graphic nature of some of the language, the following may not be suitable for all audiences.

The Guinea Worm. Most people have never heard of it. It is also called Dracunculiasis. Some believe it to be the “fiery serpents” of Numbers 21. It is a parasite that has devastated many parts of Africa. Children miss school because of Guinea worm infestation. Farmers are unable to work their fields, bringing about starvation for their families and even whole villages. And yet the Guinea worm is on the brink of being the first parasite to be eradicated, and the first disease to be eliminated without vaccines or medicines (because none work on the disease).

In many parts of Africa, drinking water is contaminated with sand fleas. The sand flea is tiny, and can barely be seen when you hold up a glass of contaminated water. This flea is, in itself, virtually harmless to people. It is what is inside the sand flea that is dangerous. Sand fleas eat the larvae of the Guinea worm. People drink the water from rivers and lakes which house the sand fleas. Once inside the human stomach the sand flea is digested, but the Guinea worm larva goes into the intestines where it hatches. The male and female worms mate and the male is absorbed into the body. As it grows into a Guinea worm the female moves into the joints, usually in the legs. About a year after the person first swallows the host sand flea, the Guinea worm begins its damage. A sore pops up on the leg or foot of the host person. Soon the worm begins to stick out of the sore. As the tail end of the worm begins to emerge, the person begins feeling excruciating pain, like the leg is on fire. (This is how it gets its less common name, which means “little dragon affliction.”) Normally the person goes to the nearest body of water to soak the afflicted part. As soon as the worm is in the water, she lays her eggs, and can do so for several days. The pain goes on for weeks unless one extracts the worm, now like a three-foot piece of spaghetti, which is almost as painful as leaving it in the body. Once the eggs are in the water they are eaten by sand fleas, and the cycle continues. The bad thing for the Guinea worm, though, is that this life cycle requires a human host. Without the human, the larvae never hatch. Without the human seeking relief in the water, the reproductive cycle is broken. And therein lies the cure.

The Carter Foundation has been teaching people in Africa how to eliminate the scourge of the Guinea worm. It does not take medication. It takes retraining. President Carter and his teams of educators have created an essential shift in culture that has eliminated Guinea Worm Disease in almost every country in Africa, beginning with Niger and Nigeria. Not doctors, educators. They teach people to filter their drinking water using a fine cloth. They teach people not to bathe in the source of drinking water, especially when suffering the pain of the Guinea worm, thus preventing reproduction. Convincing people to change behavior, and convincing them of the need to do so, have eliminated Guinea worm infestations in those countries that have allowed the Carter Foundation to do their work.

Sin is like the Guinea worm. It requires a human host. It may lay dormant for long periods of time before coming out of hiding. It causes immense pain, loss of life, and loss of earnings. And it is treatable without medication. It can be ended with education. The results of sin required the death of a perfect savior, but sin itself can be eliminated just by teaching people about what it is and how to prevent its spread. It worked almost two millennia ago, when a group of men taught, and those afflicted asked “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37) A man named Paul taught, and people learned the shift in thinking.

Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:1-4)