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Jimmy Carter and the Guinea Worm Straw

Seven years ago, I gave an oddly-titled sermon: “The Guinea Worm Straw.” I am thinking about that today, as the news is spreading that President Jimmy Carter has opted to go into hospice care.

The story of the Guinea Worm Straw is still one that fascinates me, and fills me with admiration. After President Carter left office, he met with some of the best minds of the world, asking them if there was a significant problem that could be solved with the resources he had access to, as a former US president. He wasn’t just looking for a problem – like poverty – in which he could make a difference. He wanted to find an issue that could be triumphed over.

“The Guinea Worm,” they told him. It was a terrible problem, since ancient times, in which a parasitic worm infects human hosts. But it could be eradicated with a combination of education, tools, and treatment of the waters in which the guinea worm spawned.

When the Carter Center got involved in 1986, there were 3.5 million cases. They had to attack the problem on multiple fronts – getting governments to agree to support the education program, getting businesses to donate millions of dollars in larvacide, teaching people to not seek the relief of cool local waters for the burning associated with the disease (because that is how the water sources are contaminated and the cycle of infection continues). And … the invention of a straw that would filter out the larvae, so the person drinking remained safe.

In 1990, President Carter wrote optimistically that “If the world cooperates, as it did to eradicate smallpox, Guinea worm could be eliminated by the end of 1995.” That was not to be, as they faced numerous setbacks – wars where healthcare workers couldn’t enter countries, and the discovery that the parasite was being spread among other animals. But the scientists and healthcare workers keep moving forward, searching for new ways to combat this foe.

Today, there are 13 known cases of a human patient with guinea worm.

Thank you, Jimmy Carter. And well done, good and faithful servant.