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Ghana battles guinea worm

25th October 2006

The main reason the incidence of Guinea worm remains stubbornly high in the former British colony of Ghana is that many of those living in the country's north lack access to safe drinking water, aid workers say.

Guinea worm, also known as "the fiery serpent", is contracted by drinking water contaminated with microscopic water fleas carrying larvae. Once in the abdomen, worm larvae grow for around a year before emerging through an agonising blister.

Global efforts to eradicate the waterborne parasite have seen the number of cases fall from an estimated 3.5 million in 1986 to 10,674 reported cases last year, according to the Carter Center, an aid organisation set up by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

It is now endemic in just nine countries, all of them in Africa: Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

Many of the countries where the disease is found are also struggling with other humanitarian crises: Sudan's conflicts in its western Darfur region and until recently its oil-rich south, or Mali and Niger's crop failures and food shortages.

Yet Ghana, a peaceful and relatively prosperous West African state, had 3,981 reported cases in 2005, second only to Sudan, which saw 5,569 cases reported last year.

The stinging sensation caused in the boil or blister when the Guinea worm emerges sends many sufferers into water to try to cool their skin. But on contact with water, the worm spews out larvae, putting those who drink the water later at risk.

As the debate continues on how to tackle the region's clean water problems, the social and economic costs of the disease remain high.

The Carter Center estimates rice farmers in southeastern Nigeria lost $20 million in one year because of outbreaks of Guinea worm which incapacitated workers.

Last year, one elderly man had 80 worms surgically removed in a village in Ghana's Brong Ahafo region so devastated by the disease that the government had to send in food aid. Children are also kept out of school to care for adults with the disease.

 

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