Ajak Kuol Nyamchiek in Abuyong, Sudan, watches a nurse from the Carter Center bandage her leg where a Guinea worm is slowly emerging. ((Maggie Fick/Associated Press))

The program aimed at eradicating a painful African parasite has brought cases of the disease to an all-time low, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said Thursday.

In 2010 fewer than 1,800 cases of Guinea worm disease were reported, a dramatic drop from 3.5 million in 1986 when the Atlanta-based Carter Center targeted the disease.

Most of the existing cases were in Southern Sudan, he said, with the rest reported in Mali, Ethiopia and a recent outbreak in Chad.

"We have a few more years until we can eradicate this from the face of the Earth," Carter said.

The Carter Center has worked to stem the spread of Guinea worm in part by handing out millions of pipe filters and educating residents about the dangers of drinking tainted water. The former president has also encouraged local politicians to devote time and resources to fighting the disease.

'The impoverisher'

In Nigeria, which once reported 650,000 cases of the disease, Guinea worm was formerly such a scourge that local people nicknamed it: "the Impoverisher." Now it and neighbouring Niger haven't had a case of the disease since late 2008, health officials said.

Guinea worm disease

  • A non-fatal parasite caught from drinking water contaminated with larvae.
  • In a year, the worm can grow to be almost one metre-long, resembling a spaghetti noodle. The worm then slowly emerges through the skin, often causing months of debilitating pain.
  • Usually not fatal.
  • There is no vaccine or medicine for the disease. Infection is prevented by filtering drinking water.

Carter warned that regional instability could delay efforts to eradicate the disease. He said violence could hamper efforts by the more than 10,000 volunteers fighting the disease.

"The last cases of any disease are the most challenging to wipe out, especially when stability is threatened in the endemic communities of Southern Sudan and Mali," said Dr. Donald Hopkins, the centre's vice-president of health programs.

"But we know that with the international community's support, eradication of Guinea worm disease is not a question of if — but when."

Carter said his efforts to stamp out diseases taught him to have confidence in local residents to lead the fight. "We underestimate the capability of people, if given a chance, to improve their own life," he said.