Jimmy Carter, health stable, continues fight against world diseases

Former President Jimmy Carter, right, Dr. Donald Hopkins, center, and Rosalynn Carter, far left, give a tour of a new section of the Carter Museum. The Carter Center has aided in the near extinction of the Guinea worm where only 25 cases exist today. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
caption arrowCaption
Former President Jimmy Carter, right, Dr. Donald Hopkins, center, and Rosalynn Carter, far left, give a tour of a new section of the Carter Museum. The Carter Center has aided in the near extinction of the Guinea worm where only 25 cases exist today. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

President Jimmy Carter will continue his work to eradicate Guinea worm and other diseases as his health remains stable.

He announced Wednesday that Guinea worm disease has been reduced to 25 cases in three countries. When The Carter Center took a leading role in trying to eradicate a handful of diseases in the mid 1980’s, Guinea worm was in 21 countries and affected 3.5 million people.

The 92-year-old Carter told the House of Lords in London in 2016 that his prayer was that he would live long enough to see the end of the parasite-based disease. He battled a disease of his own the year before, cancer. He responded well to surgery and treatment.

He feels good about his chances to see that prayer answered, he said Wednesday.

"Since last January the MRI scans of my liver and my brain have not revealed any remaining melanoma or cancer … I feel confident about it, yes," he said. "I never really lost my confidence except about year and half ago when I thought I was going to die, for a few weeks."

He plans to go to the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, where he hopes to continue pushing the need for the U.S. to remain involved in disease eradication. It is a cause dear to his and Rosalynn Carter's hearts and is a main thrust of The Carter Center's work.

Carter said he hopes to talk to Trump and the new Secretary of State, who oversees international development, democracy and medical programs such those run by USAID, the federal program aimed at relieving global poverty.

"Of course, [disease eradication efforts] are dependent on USAID, and I'll be meeting with President-elect Trump and also with his new secretary of state, who is in charge of USAID, just to let them know what we are doing," Carter said.

Carter has used his stature to involve nonprofits, foreign governments, health organizations and wealthy donors to try to eliminate diseases scientists believe are medically possible to eradicate. Often those diseases are found only in remote places and are relatively obscure, such as elephantiasis, which causes a grotesque swelling of appendages such as feet, and Guinea worm, where people ingest larvae in unclean water. The larvae turn into thread-like worms, which erupt from the skin.

Read about the new exhibit at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library about campaigns to eliminate diseases.

In 1995, he famously used relationships he had established with leaders from both sides in the civil war in Sudan to negotiate the “Guinea worm ceasefire,” so workers could get safely in to build the health infrastructure and provide treatment for the people there.

Though recent efforts reduced the number of countries that Guinea worm is found in from four to three, the bad news is that there are a couple more cases than last year.

Disease experts say the last few cases are the most difficult to find and stamp out. Only one disease has been eradicated in human history, smallpox. But Carter and experts are hopeful Guinea worm will soon follow.

Dr. Donald Hopkins, the former director of health programs at The Carter Center and now special advisor for Guinea worm eradication, said the slight uptick in the number of cases is statistically unimporant. Eliminating a region where the disease was endemic is.

But a new twist has emerged. Dogs in Chad, one of the endemic countries, have been found to carry the parasite. The partners in the fight have adopted new strategies to stop tranmission by dogs, including offering bounties for coraling infected animals.

Unexpected events such as that make strangling out those last few cases problematic and make it hard to predict when the world, and Carter, will see the last case.

Hopkins said he has given up trying to make that forecast. It could be a year, if everything were to go perfectly.

But perfection is something that people in war-torn, poverty stricken and often ignored parts of the world can only pray for.