via New Scientist
So near – and yet so far. Health workers in South Sudan are close to making the parasitic guinea worm only the second human disease ever to be eradicated. Just 11 cases have been seen this year in the country, the worm’s last major stronghold, compared to 55 at this time last year.
The progress may be short-lived. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, ending years of civil war and bringing hopes that a stable political climate would allow health workers to finish off the guinea worm. But last December, violence flared in the capital, Juba, after a political rift between the country’s president and vice-president sparked clashes between the two men’s ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Fighting then spread to their home territories.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.3 million have fled their homes, including 95,000 crowded dangerously into UN compounds. The conflict has disrupted farming, and the charity Oxfam warns that famine could affect 7 million by August. And the wet season has begun, spreading cholera; an outbreak in Juba has affected 892 people so far.
At a meeting in Oslo last week, developed countries pledged an additional $600 million in aid – a third of what the UN says it needs. The agency warns that by December, half of the country’s people will be displaced, starving or dead“.
Poverty and scarce water have led to raiding between cattle herders in the past, and such disruptions have helped the guinea worm hang on, say health experts with the Guinea Worm Eradication Program, run by the non-profit Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
The current violence is even more intense – foreign project staff had to flee the country when it broke out in December, but were back by January, says project leader Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben. Worm cases peak mid-year, and health workers isolate people for treatment and to stop larvae spreading. If workers are forced to flee again and the infection spreads it could put eradication back years.
Still, Ruiz-Tiben is hopeful. The south-east region of the country had the most cases of guinea worm last year, but so far it has seen relatively little violence.