Jimmy Carter has gone into hospice care in Georgia. But he’s hoping to win one last battle before his time runs out.
Back in 1982, when he had finished his one term as President, he established the Carter Center, with a focus on promoting peace and health in 80 of the world’s most troubled nations. At the center of that effort was the goal of eradicating something called Dracunculus, AKA the Dragon Worm, which is commonly known as Guinea Worm.
It was an ostentatious ambition, as Guinea Worm is a scourge that has been plaguing humanity for a very long time. It is referenced many times in the Bible as the ‘fiery serpent,’ and with good reason. It is a nematode that enters humans in larval form through dirty drinking water, grows up to 3 meters long, and then erupts through the skin as a viciously painful blister. An affected person has an understandable urge to plunge the blister into some cold water, but that only prompts the nematode to lay more larvae, which disperse into the water and start the whole vicious cycle all over again.
The traditional treatment that has gone unchanged for millennia is absolutely brutal. The patient must lie still for weeks while the worm is very slowly coaxed to wrap itself around a stick so it can be pulled out, hopefully without breaking it and having to start over. All the while, the open wound is subject to infection, and the patient is unproductive, exacerbating the cycle of poverty that created the dirty drinking water in the first place.
Guinea Worm has been so central to human misery for so long that, in ancient days, the god of medicine, Asclepius, was symbolized by a snake wrapped around a stick. That symbol, the Staff of Asclepius, is something you’ve seen thousands of times, on the logo of medical entities like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, and many, many more.
(Some of you might be saying, “I thought that symbol had TWO snakes.” You’d be right, some of the time. Hermes, the Greek god of information and commerce, had as HIS symbol a staff topped with a pair of wings, and wrapped with two fluttering ribbons, to symbolize his speed. Over time, the ribbons evolved into two snakes, and the symbol became known as the Caduceus of Hermes. In the 16th century, alchemists – who called themselves, “sons of Hermes” – adopted it. Since then, though alchemy has been discredited, the Caduceus has been taken up as a symbol of many medical businesses like hospitals and pharmacies.)
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or cure for Guinea Worm. The only way to eradicate it is to remove the dirty water that fosters it. And that means addressing the chronic conflict and poverty that causes those conditions. It’s been a very heavy lift in some terribly sad places in Africa and Asia. But due to the work of the Carter Center, there has been long slow progress in eradicating this scourge. Back in 1986, there were 3.5 million cases of Guinea Worm disease recorded across 21 countries; by 2013, the disease had been reduced to a total of 148 cases in the areas around war-torn South Sudan.
But this Dragon has proven very hard to kill. This past January, the Carter Center announced that there were still 13 cases out there, prolonging the day that Guinea Worm would be announced as fully eradicated. When that magnificent moment comes, the God of Medicine, Asclepius, can wave his stick and happily announce that the Dragon is Dead. And the God of Information, Hermes, can run around, streaming his ribbons, and tell everybody about it.
It will be only the second disease to be eradicated in human history, along with smallpox.
And Jimmy Carter, Dragon Slayer, will be able to rest in peace, his awesome dream finally fulfilled.
– MIke Keeler