TIME global health

This Species Is Close to Extinction and That’s a Good Thing

This July 28, 2004 picture shows volunteers Moises Matos and Helen Hand help assemble medical kits to fight Guinea worm disease at a warehouse in Atlanta.
John Bazemore—AP Volunteers Moises Matos and Helen Hand help assemble medical kits to fight Guinea worm disease at a warehouse on July 28, 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia.

The disappearance would mark the scouring of a disease from the face of the earth

WSF logo small

The Guinea worm is inching ever closer to extinction, but unlike just about every other endangered species, no one is going to try to save it, least of all scientists. On the contrary, the worm’s disappearance would mark the scouring of a disease from the face of the earth—a feat humanity’s only been able to celebrate twice before, with the end of smallpox in 1980 and of the cattle disease rinderpest in 2011. (Polio, despite the fact that a vaccine’s been around for more than half a century, has managed to hang on by its microscopic threads.)

What Is Guinea Worm Disease?

The Guinea worm is a parasite that enters the human body when the unwitting host-to-be drinks water contaminated with tiny water fleas in which Guinea worm larvae lurk. Once ingested, the fleas die and the Guinea worm larvae enter the host’s abdominal cavity and, unbeknownst to the host, begin maturing into a worm or worms that grow up to three feet in length. After about a year a painful blister forms on the host’s skin accompanied by itching and a burning sensation. Within about 10 to 15 days, one or more worms erupt from the person’s skin in a painful and drawn-out process. The emergence can occur from different parts of the body, including the roof of the mouth, the genitals, or the eye sockets, but around 90 percent of the worms emerge from the lower legs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). (There are plenty of videos of Guinea worm extractions on YouTube, but be warned they’re quite unsettling.)

While the disease rarely kills, it can leave the host debilitated and weakened for a short or long period of time.

“The lesions caused by the worms often develop secondary bacterial infections that migrate all along the tract where the worm was,” says Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, the director of the Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program. “The pain and agony can last for weeks.”

To alleviate the pain, the infected person often dips the part of the body from which the worm has emerged into water, where the female worm that is emerging can lay more larvae, and begin the process anew.

A Disease on the Decline

Thanks in large part to the work of the Carter Center, the incidence of Guinea worm disease (also known as dracunculiasis, which is Latin for “affliction with little dragons”) has plummeted in recent years, falling from an estimated 3.5 million cases worldwide in the mid-1980s to just 148 in 2013 and 126 in 2014, according to the WHO.

How has such success been achieved? It’s taken the concerted effort of all involved—the scientists who have figured out how to contain it, community organizers who have helped spread the word on preventative solutions, and the people in areas where Guinea worm disease has been a big problem who are implementing the necessary changes to keep the parasite at bay.

“Guinea worm eradication is like an orchestra: Every player has to play their own instrument but play from the same page of music,” says Ruiz-Tiben.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: The Rise of Preventable Illnesses

There’s No Cure for the Long-Lived Dracunculiasis, but Preventive Measures Are Finding Success

While it could disappear in the near future, dracunculiasis is a disease that has been around for centuries. It is believed to be the “fiery serpents” referenced in the Old Testament, and the calcified remains of a male Guinea worm were found in an Egyptian mummy.

The treatment has been around a long time too. A description found on an Egyptian papyrus from 1,500 BC outlines the treatment that’s followed today: Wind the worm around a stick as it emerges.

But unlike rinderpest and smallpox, Guinea worm disease cannot be vaccinated against. Preventing its infection is a matter of making sure people don’t drink the contaminated water. To that end, education and water filtration are key. Both cloth filters, used to filter large amounts of water in containers, and smaller pipe filters, used like a straw when drinking, can screen out the water fleas that carry the Guinea worm larvae. There are also ways of chemically treating water sources to reduce populations of water fleas, but the microorganisms eventually return.

“There’s no magic bullet against this disease,” Ruiz-Taben says. But “the more barriers we can put out there to interrupt the life cycle of this disease, the greater likelihood there is that we can interrupt transmission.”

Once spread across Africa, the worm is now holding on only in South Sudan, Mali, Chad, and Ethiopia. Stamping out those last few strongholds, says Ruiz-Taben, is just a matter of continuing the cooperative work that’s been going on since the 1990s. As the journalist Julius Cavendish wrote in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization this past December:

“Not only is guinea-worm disease relatively easy to control, in theory, but the benefits of eradication far outweigh the costs. … According to a 1997 World Bank study, the economic rate of return on the investment in Guinea-worm disease eradication will be about 29% per year once the disease is eradicated… removing guinea-worm disease translates into hundreds of thousands of communities better able to work their fields, send their children to school and escape the cycle of poverty and disease.”

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: How We Bounce Back: The New Science of Human Resilience

If Wiped Out, Could It Recrudesce?

If the number of cases drops to zero, there should be little chance of dracunculiasis coming back. There could be hurdles to its total annhilation, however. While Guinea worms (unlike Ebola) don’t seem to have a widespread tendency to hide out in animals when they’re not infecting humans, there have been a few reports of dogs with the worms reported in Chad; if this turns out to be a more common phenomenon, eradication efforts may have to turn to preventing those canine cases too. And if those countries that host the last areas of Guinea worm infestation were to suffer from war, famine, or other kinds of instability, that could slow the process of eradication. In Mali, for example, just seven cases were reported in 2012—but those numbers increased slightly in 2013 and 2014, when conflict with Islamist rebels hampered eradication efforts.

Still, the ultimate end looks to be within reach. Does Ruiz-Taben think he’ll see Guinea worm disease completely eliminated in his lifetime?

“I am very hopeful—more than hopeful,” he says.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: What Will Happen to Your Body in 2015?

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME conflict

Freed Iranian Hostages Weren’t Sure Whether to Criticize Carter or Thank Him

Free After 444 Days
Express / Getty Images United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days, in January of 1981

Jan. 20, 1981: Iran releases 52 Americans who have been held hostage for 444 days

When the Iran Hostage Crisis ended on this day, Jan. 20, in 1981, 52 Americans were freed after being subjected to “acts of barbarism,” as President Carter phrased it, for 444 days.

The crisis had started with American support for the Iranian Shah in the 1970s; when Iranian revolutionaries declared him anti-Islamic and forced him from office in 1979, they quickly moved on to their next target: the American embassy in Tehran, where a group of students took more than 60 people hostage. Iran’s new leader released those among the group who were female, black or non-U.S. citizens, saying that they had already suffered “the oppression of American society.”

Called spies by the Iranians, they were physically and mentally tormented to an extent the American public was unaware of at the time. It was later reported that, in addition to regular beatings, they were subjected to mock firing squads and games of Russian roulette. Many of the hostages later said they never expected to survive the ordeal; TIME reported that one of Iran’s Foreign Ministers thought the hostages could be held “more or less forever.”

Though he was wrong, the situation did end up costing President Carter the 1980 election, many believe, since it was hard to appeal to the public when, for more than a year, the evening news regularly broadcast images of angry Iranian mobs shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Carter.”

But as for the hostages themselves, they had mixed feelings for Carter, whose policies could be blamed for getting them into the crisis, but who worked with single-minded devotion to get them out. During his last few days in office, he worked nearly around the clock on the final negotiations that secured their release, occupying the Oval Office until 15 minutes before Ronald Reagan arrived for his inauguration.

The hostages were released minutes after Reagan was sworn in. Carter flew to Germany to meet with them. The encounter was bittersweet. According to the New York Times’ account, the hostages sat in a circle, passing around copies of American newspapers Carter had brought with him, all bearing headlines about their release. Some were critical of the former president. One asked why a botched rescue mission Carter had authorized the previous spring hadn’t been tried sooner; another asked whether it should have been attempted at all.

But they applauded when he said that the Iranians had not succeeded in their attempts to extort money from the U.S., using the hostages as leverage.

When Carter left, L. Bruce Laingen, the ranking diplomatic officer among the former hostages, escorted him to his limousine. According to the Times, “Mr. Laingen embraced the former President once, held him at arms length and then embraced him a second time before letting him go.”

Read a 1981 account of what the hostages went through, here in the TIME Vault: The Long Ordeal of the Hostages

TIME Foreign Policy

All the Presidents’ Looks: 9 Pictures of Commanders-in-Costume

It’s not every day when the pageantry of leading the free world looks so specifically like an actual pageant. But indeed, when Presidents of the United States don the traditional garb of the country they’re visiting, just about anything can happen.

From the hilariously uncomfortable (Putin, Bush, ponchos) to the kind-of-awesome (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s colorful threads in Ghana), here’s photographic evidence that sometimes diplomacy requires more wardrobe changes than a Cher concert.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

Jimmy Carter Talks About Iran, Campus Rape, Jesus Christ and the Paintings of W.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends an interview with Reuters in Cairo on Jan. 12, 2012.
Amr Dalsh—Reuters Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends an interview with Reuters in Cairo on Jan. 12, 2012.

The former President speaks openly on a range of topics, from his desire to meet Pope Francis and the U.S.'s role as the world's largest warmonger to Kerry's "notable" efforts to secure Middle East peace and Bush's "interesting" paintings

Former President Jimmy Carter, a hobbyist painter for more than two decades, counts himself a fan of George W. Bush’s art. “He does very interesting work,” Carter told TIME in an interview by phone on Wednesday. “I have been very interested and intrigued and congratulatory toward President Bush and his paintings.”

Just don’t expect a joint Carter-Bush gallery showing anytime soon. “Oh, I doubt that,” the 39th President of the United States says, when asked about the possibility. The truth is, Carter remains as outspoken as he has ever been, even as Bush has largely receded from any public role in the policy issues of the day. And on matters of politics and policy, the two men still remain far apart.

After speaking Tuesday night at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Carter spoke with TIME by phone about his recent efforts, including his correspondence with Pope Francis and Secretary of State John Kerry, the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton’s time in office and his recent book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.

He also spoke about how Obama should handle Russian President Vladimir Putin and criticized the current American President for not taking a more hands-on role in working toward Middle East peace in the first term. “I know from experience that the best way to have the United States be a mediator is for the President himself to be deeply involved,” he said. “In this occasion, when Secretary Clinton was Secretary of State, she took very little action to bring about peace.”

The following interview has been edited for length.

You say in A Call to Action that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women in his culture. Why was that?

He set an example that should be emulated down to the ages, and one of the examples that he set invariably in every word and deed of his life was to emphasize the equality of women and even to exalt women well beyond any status they had enjoyed in any previous decades or centuries or even since then. But unfortunately there have been interpretations of what Jesus did by very wonderful theologians that wrote individual letters to individual churches all across Asia minor and so forth, that can be misinterpreted and to prove by male religious leaders that women should not be equal in the eyes of God.

You wrote a letter to Pope Francis urging the Catholic Church to do more to condemn things like genital mutilation and child marriage. What do you hope the Pope can do? What was his response?

His letter was very gracious to me, his response. He said that he thought that the status of women and the role of women in the Catholic Church in the future should be improved or enhanced. I was very pleased to get that response. I noticed that now, about 10 days ago, Pope Francis appointed an eight-person committee to deal with the problem of priests abusing children. Half of the committee members were women, one of whom had been abused as a girl by a priest.

Will you get to meet Pope Francis anytime soon?

I hope so, if he comes to the United States. I’d like very much to meet him. If I go to Italy, I will certainly request to meet with Pope Francis, whom I admire very much.

How can colleges and collegiate athletic programs more effectively address the issue of rape on campus?

There’s a common perception among college administrators that they should conceal the high level of sexual assaults that take place on their campuses because it would bring discredit to the university, bring them a bad name if it was publicized. So they counsel girls who are raped or sexually abused not to make an issue of it legally, not to prosecute the boys who are the rapists. What this does is give the young men, who are inclined to be rapists, the conviction which is accurate that they can do it with impunity. The Justice Department of the United States believes that, as reported, half the rapes on college campuses are caused by serial rapists just a few male students who are rapists because they know they can get away with it on the campus. Only 1 out of 25 sexual-assault cases on campus are ever reported to the authorities.

What could the U.S. do better to address human trafficking?

What we’ve done so far is a tiny step. Congress mandated, or required, that the U.S. State Department give an annual report on global human trafficking or slavery. It is much greater now than it ever was during the 19th century when black people were brought out of Africa to the New World. It amounts to about $32 billion a year. The United States is heavily involved in human slavery. The officials particularly at the local level throughout America look the other way for prostitution. The policemen are either bribed or they are given free sexual favors or they get orders from their chief of police that come from the mayor and city council, “Oh, let’s not rock the boat.” So prostitution thrives in the United States. We focus in this country on punishing the girls. For every brothel owner or pimp or male customer, there are 50 girls who are arrested for being prostitutes. Other countries have tried the other way around, and it works beautifully. Sweden is the No. 1 example that other countries are now emulating, where they bring the charges against the brothel owners and the pimps and the male customers, and they do not prosecute the girls, who quite often are brought into that trade involuntarily. It works quite well, by the way.

Is that an example the U.S. should follow?

I think so, yes. I would like to see our country follow it, but so far there is not any question about it. Everybody just sits back and says this is the way it is to be. But it you arrest two or three prominent men in a community, in Atlanta, New York or wherever, the prostitution would drop off immediately and you would remove almost completely the involuntary sale of prostitutes against their will in those communities.

You said last week that “the U.S. is the No. 1 warmonger on earth” —

Yes, it is. It has been. You can look at the record: ever since the United Nations was formed after the Second World War, the United States has almost constantly been at war somewhere. There are about 30 countries where we have initiated armed conflict.

Do you feel that Iran and the U.S. can be friends and allies again, like they were before the 1979 revolution?

Well, even after the ’79 revolution, that’s what people forget. After the Shah was overthrown and the Ayatullah Khamenei established his revolution, I immediately recognized that government, and I sent diplomats over — those were the ones taken by the Iranian militants — so yes, I think we should and we ought to. If we can’t have full diplomatic relations, we can certainly work out an agreement whereby we can avoid armed conflict.

What’s your take on Secretary Kerry’s efforts so far in the Middle East?

I think they are notable, and I have a great admiration for him. I stay in touch with him fairly often by email. I send him messages and tell him what my thoughts might be, and he has responded very graciously. He has had a very difficult time operating pretty much on his own. I know from experience that the best way to have the United States be a mediator is for the President himself to be deeply involved. In this occasion, when Secretary Clinton was Secretary of State, she took very little action to bring about peace. It was only John Kerry’s coming into office that reinitiated all these very important and crucial issues.

Can you share some of the advice you’ve given him?

I don’t want to reveal what messages I’ve sent to Secretary Kerry. But I’ve urged him as he formulates the framework not to deviate from long-standing international law that has always been observed by the United States and by all the Europeans and by the Israelis and the Arab countries, and I think to reverse all those basic United Nations that everyone has agreed to establish would be a step backward.

How would you deal with a Vladimir Putin?

Well, I had the same thing happen to me when I was President. On Christmas weekend of 1979, [Leonid] Brezhnev ordered Soviet troops to invade Afghanistan. I took action there just like the United States is doing now after Russia has taken over Crimea. I couldn’t undo what was already done. But I said to Brezhnev, as stern as possible measures, I withdrew my adviser, I broke diplomat relations with the Soviet Union, I formulated a boycott of a shipping grain and so forth, a trade boycott, and I notified Brezhnev publicly that if he went any further with military action, that we would respond militarily, and that I wouldn’t withhold any weapons that we had at our disposal. It was a very stern and very heartfelt and sincere warning, which I would have carried out. Of course, it never went any further. We also, secretly, gave weapons to the freedom fighters in Afghanistan so they could prevent the invading forces from taking over Afghanistan, and that effort was successful.

What’s your No. 1 tip for a woman seeking to get a raise?

The No. 1 thing she can do is insist, even in court, that the salaries paid by employers are made public. So if a woman is working side by same with a man, equal hours and equal levels of responsibility, that she will know and that everyone in the company will know, that she is being paid 23% less, that’s the average for the United States. I believe that we also need to be sure that our government takes action, as other countries in Europe have done to prescribe that a certain percentage of women be allowed to work on corporate boards. Norway, Sweden and others do that; it has worked fairly well.

TIME Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter Sent His First Text Message

"That was my first text message." No, seriously

Former President Jimmy Carter sent his first text message Wednesday. Carter’s grandson, a candidate in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, later tweeted Carter’s text. Here:

[h/t Politico]

TIME Surveillance

VIDEO: Jimmy Carter Believes NSA Is Reading His Emails

The former President tells NBC's "Meet the Press" he now communicates with foreign leaders by snail mail

Former President Jimmy Carter told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that he has his own system to avoiding being monitored by the National Security Agency, which is under scrutiny following leaks from its former contractor Edward Snowden: “When I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I would type or write the letter myself, put it in the post office and mail it.” He added that the spy agency had abused its authority.

TIME closeup

Pictures of the Week, November 4 – November 11

From ‘Id al Adha celebrations and flying rhinos to Alaska’s epic storm and Obama’s visit with school children, TIME’s photo department presents the best images of the week.

From ‘Id al Adha celebrations and flying rhinos to Alaska’s epic storm and Obama’s visit with school children, TIME’s photo department presents the best images of the week.

See last week’s Pictures of the Week.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com