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Health News

UK gives £20m to global war on guinea worm

The fight to eradicate the gruesome and debilitating "guinea worm" disease, making it only the second in the world to be wiped out after smallpox, is on the verge of success after it secured £20m funding from the Government.

Guinea worm afflicted 3.5 million people across 21 countries in 1986, but thanks to a campaign launched that year by former US President, Jimmy Carter, it is now confined to South Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali, afflicting only 1,797 people last year.

The disease is contracted by drinking water contaminated with microscopic worm larvae, which grow up to a metre long and emerge about a year later from the afflicted person's body through a blister in the skin.

Britain has now become the first state donor to fund the campaign, which could exacerbate the wrath of many on the right of the Conservative Party, who have privately expressed concern that the Government is spending too much on foreign aid. There is no known cure or vaccine but aid efforts have focused on providing drinking water filters and educating vulnerable populations about the dangers of drinking contaminated water.

The disease is usually non-fatal but causes extreme pain and leaves sufferers bedridden for weeks or months. If the eradication drive is successful, it will follow smallpox into history and the species that causes it will be declared extinct.

Jimmy Carter paid tribute to the UK's "willingness and staying power" in supporting his campaign, which hopes to achieve its goal by 2015, and called on other donors to "match the UK's efforts". The funding pledge from the Department for International Development (DFID) is dependent on other donors providing the additional £40m needed to achieve the Carter Foundation's goals.

Dr John Hardman, president of the Carter Foundation, praised the DFID for leading the developed world on international aid.

"We have had a strong partnership with DFID for years and to hear about this additional grant was music to our ears," he said. "DFID exemplify how we can form partnerships to attack challenging problems and diseases in the developing world."

The disease by numbers

99.95% The fall in sufferers from guinea worm disease over the past 25 years.

£60m The total amount of money the Carter Centre believes is needed to eradicate the disease forever.

£950m The amount of the DFID's annual £8.1bn budget spent on health projects.