Dream Team: How Jimmy Carter Beat Guinea Worm, With Help From Bill Gates

In 1986, the same year that Microsoft went public and Bill Gates officially became a billionaire, Jimmy Carter’s foundation, the Carter Center, declared war on Guinea worm.

At that time, over 3.5 million people across 21 countries in Africa and Asia suffered the ravages of Guinea worm, which is contracted by drinking contaminated water. Carter describes the disease as "horribly painful," not to mention pretty gross. Once the larvae are ingested through contaminated water, within a year, they grow into three-foot long worms. As if that wasn’t stomach-churning enough, the worms then exit the body through lesions that can form anywhere on the body. This, of course, often leads to secondary infections.

In the early days of the Guinea worm project, the Carter Center found that people in over 26,000 villages were affected by the parasite. Getting to the often remote villages to help Guinea worm sufferers and was a huge roadblock for many NGOs and government agencies back then. As of 2015, the center has had a presence in each one of those villages.

So why did Carter get involved with Guinea worm eradication? Simply put, because no one else would. Global health issues had yet become a mega-focus of philanthropy and, in any case, the philanthropic sector had many fewer resources than it does today. 

Carter attacked Guinea worm mainly by cajoling government and international agencies to take action, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF,  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and national ministries of health.

This has remained the center's strategy, but the game changer for the Carter Center's work came in 2005 when Bill Gates, now a big time philanthropist, made a $25 million grant to the center for its work on Guinea worm. Just three years later, the Gates Foundation gave the center another $63 million. 

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Health

That money allowed the center to greatly ramp up its work and now, finally, victory against Guinea worm is finally within sight. As of last year, there were only an estimated 126 cases of Guinea worm remaining, and this year, Guinea worm is set to be the first-ever parasitic disease to be eradicated. If everything goes as planned, Guinea worm will be the second disease to be eradicated in history. Smallpox was the first. The march toward reaching this major global health milestone was accomplished in no small part, due to the Carter Center’s efforts, with a crucial assist from Gates. 

In the world of parasitic diseases, things can shift quickly, so the Carter Center isn’t counting its chickens just yet by announcing additional neglected and tropical diseases it plans to take on once the Guinea worm is gone. Although the center tends to bypass the diseases that receive a lot of attention from organizations like the WHO and the UN, it has more recently jumped on board the fight against malaria.

Related: A Big Gift to Fuel the Final Offensive Against Guinea Worm

So far though, it looks like the center will celebrate its part in Guinea worm eradication while continuing its ongoing battles with river blindness, trachoma, schistosomiasis, and lymphatic filariasis.

We'll take a look at the campaign against river blindness, another horrific disease, another time, but it's worth noting that Carter and Gates teamed up on that one, too.