Jimmy Carter’s Last Battle: Eradicating an African Disease

Todd Steven Burroughs
Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center Aug. 20, 2015, in Atlanta. Carter confirmed that he has melanoma that has spread to his liver and brain.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Former President Jimmy Carter told the world Thursday that he is fighting a spreading cancer. But, really, as he said, the fighting part was going to be left to his doctors. The former Georgia governor and current Sunday school teacher said his role was to be a good, obedient patient.

However, Carter did identify to the reporters assembled in the Carter Center in Atlanta what ranks highest on his work checklist: eliminating from the Earth a painful disease that affects Africans in poor villages without clean drinking water.


“As far as the Carter Center’s concerned, I would like to see guinea worm completely eradicated before … before I die. I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do,” said the former president in response to a question about what would give him the greatest satisfaction to see happen in his lifetime.

“I think right now, we have 11 cases. We started out with 3.6 million cases. And I think we have two cases in South Sudan and one case in Ethiopia and one case in Mali and seven cases in Chad. That’s all the guinea worms in the world, and we know where all of them are. So obviously that would be my top priority,” he said.

The scientific term for guinea worm is Dracunculus medinensis. It is a parasite that enters the body through unfiltered drinking water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The worm grows inside the human body, causing great pain. It has to be pulled out in a very painful procedure.


Dr. Sharon Roy, director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Research, Training, and Eradication of Dracunculiasis, part of the CDCP, explained how the distinct problems many of Africa’s distant areas have would allow guinea worm to spread.

“People in these very remote locations also usually suffer from food insecurity and have little or no health care, electricity, sanitation, or other basic infrastructure,” Roy said in an email interview. “In these areas, the populations are frequently marginalized, and political unrest and insecurity are common.  Some live in villages, but some of these populations are nomadic or mobile because of conflict.”


The disease is a very serious one, but Africans are winning the fight against it.

The WHO official listed the “logistical challenges” that remain to those in this last battle: the shifting populations, the danger present in high conflict zones and the seclusion of some of these villages.


But, Roy added, success has added political problems: with so little of the disease left, national ministries of health in the affected countries and international donors are turning their attention elsewhere.

Roy called the former president an “unwavering advocate” and a recognized leader in fighting guinea worm. That would also describe Carter’s Zen demeanor during Thursday’s press conference. “I was just completely at ease [after learning of the cancer].


“I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to a new adventure,” he said, talking about the worst-case scenario—and, really, the inevitable for all human beings—with his trademark smile.

White American liberals and progressives can get a lot of grief from black people. And they should. (Ask Bernie Sanders, the independent, self-described democratic socialist who is running for the office Carter held, about this.) I remember seeing the black writer Ishmael Reed, in a documentary on James Baldwin, say that “blacks were the first to attack liberalism.” I think it’s because blacks don’t really see them working hard for the oppressed: their smiles, like Carter’s, are ever present, but their calluses and scars are nonexistent.


So it says a lot about the hardworking 90-year-old Carter, a man who on Thursday became deserving of the title of the greatest living ex-president, that he publicly stated that his last fight—the one he has poured money into and resources toward—was to turn a painful disease that used to ravage the African continent into an encyclopedia entry.

Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today. 

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