Jimmy Carter on Eradicating the Guinea Worm 'This Horrible, Obnoxious Disease'
Guinea worms have plagued humanity for millennia. Now, a non-profit organization run by Jimmy Carter is very close to eradicating them for good. In a SPIEGEL interview, the former US president talks about how the benefits transcend just health issues and how the battle has been his most rewarding yet.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, after leaving the White House, you could have taken up any number of humanitarian causes. Why did you choose to work on eradicating the Guinea worm?
Jimmy Carter: The Carter Center has a policy of doing what others do not want to do. We do not compete with the World Health Organization, the United Nations or the US government. And no one wanted to deal with this horrible, obnoxious disease. The disease is ancient. The symbol for medical doctors -- the Aesculapian staff with a serpent wrapped around -- that serpent is a Guinea worm. The "fiery serpents" mentioned in the Bible -- those are Guinea worms.
SPIEGEL: Did the Biblical aspect play a significant role for you, as a Christian?
Carter: I knew the references in the Bible, but that was not the main reason. We took on that particular disease because it was ugly and horrible and afflicts the poorest people on Earth.
SPIEGEL: Why did no one else want to tackle Guinea worms?
Carter: This disease was present only in the remotest villages, a total of 23,600 villages when we started. It was very difficult to reach these places; (they were) in too many different countries. And there is no vaccine and no medication that it can be treated with.
SPIEGEL: How much time have you personally devoted to the Guinea worm eradication campaign?
Carter: Well, a lot. I have visited all the countries that have Guinea worm -- 20 countries in all. I have spent a great deal of time raising money. But, as a former president, people listen to me when I talk about forgotten diseases. After eight years of working on it, we got the World Health Organization to adopt the Guinea worm as a disease to be eradicated.
SPIEGEL: What would it mean to you personally if the Carter Center could truly eradicate Guinea worm?
Carter: It would be enormously gratifying. We have worked on it for 20 years, and we are approaching the end now. We would celebrate for a few days. And, then, we will start on another disease, possibly measles.
SPIEGEL: How close are you to reaching your goal?
Carter: Worldwide, we only have 1,700 cases left, and we know where every single one is located. About 98 percent are in Sudan. But those last few cases are very difficult. If they were not so challenging, they would have been eradicated 15 years ago.
SPIEGEL: Last February, you traveled to Sudan. What were your impressions from that trip?
Carter: The Carter Center tries to also bring peace to Sudan. But there is still a lot of violence in the southern part of the country. Some of our employees and volunteers are intimidated. Their jeeps and bicycles are stolen from them. So, the violence and the threat of violence are major obstacles we have to overcome.
SPIEGEL: What can the global community learn from the fight against the Guinea worm?
Carter: People have suffered from this horrible disease for 10,000 years, and they never have known what caused it or what to do about it. But, with a little instruction and a simple filter cloth, they can eradicate it permanently from their lives. For many of the poor people, this is the first time they have ever known success. They have learned that they can have confidence in foreigners like the Carter Center people. In the past, they have been made a lot of promises by foreigners; but, this time, they know that they have done it themselves because they are using the filter cloth, and they are the ones that see the Guinea worm gone.
SPIEGEL: You seem to be saying that the victory over Guinea worm would mean much more to the Sudanese than merely banishing a horrible disease.
Carter: Yes, it gives the people pride in what they have achieved. It gives them self-respect. It gives them confidence that the future will be better.
SPIEGEL: After leaving the White House, you were unsure of what to do with your life.
Carter: Yes, I enjoyed being president, but the campaign against Guinea worm has opened up a completely new career that is challenging and unpredictable and adventurous -- and very gratifying.
Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer