Global campaign to end Guinea worm gets $10m boost

New funding from Abu Dhabi's crown prince will support the last mile of disease eradication efforts.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has pledged new funding worth $10m to help the Carter Center in its bid to make Guinea worm the second human disease after smallpox to be eliminated worldwide.

The gift from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi will be paid out to the Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication programme over five years, with the first $4m match funded by the US-based foundation’s board of trustees.

It will support country-based community teams and health ministries with surveillance and education programmes as they seek to stamp out the last vestiges of the debilitating, yet preventable disease.

Guinea worm infections fell by half year-on-year in 2020, according to provisional data released Wednesday, with just 27 incidences of the disease in six countries.

Cases of the waterborne parasite have fallen 99.9 per cent from the more than 3.5 million recorded back in 1986, when the Carter Center first began its campaign.

“The numbers we are seeing are very encouraging,” said Jason Carter, grandson of former US president Jimmy Carter and chair of the Carter Center’s board of trustees. “However, the target number is zero — a complete, sustained absence of human cases and infections in animals — and we will not stop pushing until we get there.”

“In the UAE, we have seen first-hand the vital link between health and prosperity.”

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Guinea worm is one of more than a dozen neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), such as river blindness and leprosy. These illnesses blind, disfigure and disable millions of the world’s poorest every year, preventing them from working or attending school and costing billions of dollars in lost productivity.  

The fight against Guinea worm ­— which focuses on community outreach to educate people to filter their water and report suspected cases — has been long and painstaking, hampered by conflict and poor infrastructure, and most recently, new infections in animals.

Throughout this, the UAE has been a patient backer of the Carter Center’s efforts to eradicate the disease. A meeting in 1990 between the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, and President Carter in Abu Dhabi, sparked the start of a philanthropic partnership that has endured more than three decades.

To date, the Al Nahyan family has given some $40m to Guinea worm eradication efforts, significantly raising the profile of the disease, and catalysing other public health philanthropy in the region.

The Crown Prince’s Court is also behind other NTD initiatives such as the Reaching the Last Mile Fund, the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) in Abu Dhabi, and World NTD Day, which it launched in 2020 to raise awareness about these diseases.

“In the UAE, we have seen first-hand the vital link between health and prosperity,” noted Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. “We are privileged to continue the legacy of the founder of our nation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in our work with The Carter Center to eradicate Guinea worm disease.

“I thank former President Carter for our decades-long partnership and his unwavering commitment to ending a disease that affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

Acknowledging the importance of the UAE’s support, Curtis Kohlhaas, the Carter Center’s chief development officer, said: “That early gift from Sheikh Zayed, which went primarily to our Guinea worm efforts in Uganda, gave a much-needed influx of cash that allowed that country in particular to make incredible strides very quickly.”

“It showed the global philanthropic stage that this was something worth backing,” he added. “The personal relationship between Sheikh Zayed and President Carter really helped lend credibility to the cause, which had a ripple effect throughout the UAE and the wider Gulf.”


Guinea worm infections come from consuming water contaminated with Guinea worm larvae. The larvae matures inside the host’s body and then, after about a year, emerges as worms through blisters in the skin.

Sufferers seek relief from the pain by putting their affected limbs in water, which triggers the worm to release its larvae into the water – and the cycle begins anew.

There is no vaccine or medicine for Guinea worm disease, but it can be prevented by filtering drinking water and by stopping those affected from contaminating water sources.

This latest funding pledge from the UAE was, Kohlhaas said, even more important, as it will support the tricky last mile of getting to zero cases.

This status must then be maintained for three years to achieve a formal certification of eradication.

“The end is not only hard for the teams in the field, it’s also tough from a fundraising perspective,” he said. “Donors like numbers and it was great when we could say ‘cases are coming down by hundreds of thousands’.

“But it’s harder to appeal now the numbers are so small. So we are extremely grateful to funders like the UAE who see this as a long-term investment and who have remained committed to the very end.”

The 50 per cent reduction in Guinea worm cases recorded this year is especially notable given the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have been impacted by Covid-19,” Adam Weiss, director of the Guinea worm eradication program told Philanthropy Age. “International travel to provide additional support to country teams has been interrupted and lockdowns in some regional capitals have led to offices being closed.

“But programmatically,” he said, “we’ve been well-positioned because it’s very much a locally-led community-based approach with very few international staff. We don’t operate like most other NTD programmes through mass drug administration or national immunisation days.”

Another pressing challenge, Weiss said, was animal infections, particularly in Chad, where last year more than 1,500 Guinea worm cases were recorded in domestic dogs.

“The animal infections that we started seeing a few years ago, mainly in Chad, have forced us to re-evaluate our interventions and map out new pathways to really tailor our response to target those infections,” he explained.

“We must endeavour to stop all Guinea worms, regardless of the host and — as with all public health programmes — there are always end-game challenges. We saw this with smallpox and we’re seeing it now with polio. It doesn’t mean this can’t be done, it just makes that last mile a little bit longer than we had all hoped.”

The new UAE funding comes as the World Health Organisation unveils its 2030 roadmap for neglected tropical diseases.

The document establishes timelines and targets for improved control and elimination of 20 diseases, and includes a goal to eradicate Guinea worm disease and yaws (a chronic infection affecting the skin, bone and cartilage) by the end of the decade. – PA