Image: Guinea worm
Olivier Asselin  /  AP
Assana Mohammed, 10, grimaces as a health worker extracts a guinea worm from her foot at a containment center in Savelugu, Ghana in this 2007 photo.
updated 12/5/2008 12:03:15 PM ET 2008-12-05T17:03:15

Cases of Guinea worm disease — a horrifying infection that culminates in worms coming out of a victim's skin — have reached an all-time low worldwide, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced Friday.

Only 4,410 cases were reported worldwide during the first ten months of this year, all in six African countries. Nearly 80 percent were in Sudan, according to The Carter Center, the disease-fighting nonprofit founded by Carter and his wife.

That total is a dramatic drop from the 3.5 million cases in 20 nations that were reported when The Carter Center's eradication campaign began in 1986. It's also less than half the 9,585 cases reported by individual nations in 2007.

"Our record on Guinea worm for the last few years has been steadily and rapidly downward," Carter said.

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Health experts hope that next year may see the last reported cases of the parasitic illness, which would make it the second infection — after smallpox — to be eliminated from the world.

Carter also announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed $40 million toward the eradication effort, and the British government had pledged roughly $15 million. The Carter Center is trying to raise $32 million to match the Gates gift.

Guinea worm occurs when people drink water contaminated with worm larvae. Over a year, one or more of the larvae can grow to the size of a 3-foot-long spaghetti noodle. Then they very slowly emerge through the skin, often causing searing, debilitating pain for months. The disease is usually not fatal.

There is no vaccine or medicine for the parasite. Infection is prevented by filtering water and educating people how to avoid the disease.

On Thursday, Carter accepted a $250,000 donation from GlaxoSmithKline toward another eradication effort against lymphatic filariasis, a threadlike parasitic worm that afflicts millions.

More on Parasites | Infectious diseases

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