Guinea Worms: An Extinction to Celebrate

Mark Siddall, Curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, recently traveled to a guinea worm treatment center in South Sudan, where village volunteers and trained technical advisors are working to eradicate the parasite. Read his post about the trip here.

Image: Toposa village, South Sudan (Mark Siddall)

Humans become infected with guinea worms by consuming unfiltered water. When a water flea that happens to host guinea worm larva is ingested, the host fleas dissolve and the larval worms are free to move through the body, where they mature. Female guinea worms then burrow into the body's deeper connective tissues or adjacent to long bones, where they can grow up to 3 feet in length.

Advertisement

A year later, the guinea worm emerges through a burning blister in the skin. At that point, the worm must be extracted by hand - a lengthy and excruciating process.

Image: Dracunculus medinensis emerging from a young girl's leg (AMNH/M. Siddall)

In 1986, it was estimated that more than 3.5 million people were infected with guinea worms. Today that number has been reduced to just 542 thanks to a campaign that President Jimmy Cater began nearly three decades ago.

Advertisement

"As a leech expert," Siddall writes, " 'save the maggots' has always been my rallying cry. The rains have come to East Africa again, and with them come the worms. Let no one mourn this extinction."

Read his post on the journey to South Sudan here.