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Two Great Disappearing Acts

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Most don't know it but the world is about to witness the disappearance of two great scourges -- one a microscopic disease, the other a disease that can be measured by a ruler.

Guinea Worm has been one of the great African stalkers, but doesn't reside exclusively on that continent. One of the best-recorded diseases in history, it was well-chronicled in ancient Greece and Egypt.

I recall standing on a river bank in Bangladesh where a number of mothers had a small portion of the worm in their grasp and were attempting to pull it out of a little boy's stomach. It was almost two feet long and he was in agony. They only succeeded in removing a small portion, leaving the boy with years of pain ahead.

Thanks to help of groups like the Carter Centre, dedicated public health officials and front-line workers, only 1,797 cases were reported worldwide last year -- almost all in South Sudan. The disease originates with bad water and both South Sudan and Bangladesh have chronic cases of water problems despite laying claim to abundant water supplies.

This is an important moment in South Sudan's history. No vaccine or medication had the desired effect on guinea worm; the only hope was education. Committed volunteers taught villagers how to use filter-equipped straws to drink water. In the developing world, areas where my wife and I work in South Sudan, over 80 per cent of all diseases come from contaminated water, but for guinea worm the straw has been the most simple solution.

Rinderpest is not as well known as guinea worm but its effects have been more devastating. It's restricted to animals, mostly livestock, and the decline in the food and labour supply has been directly related to the disease. It gets its name from a German term meaning "cattle plague" and it's lived up to the description. History teaches us that it assisted in the fall of the Roman Empire and hindered Charlemagne in his exploits. Yet on June 28 in Rome, the United Nations officially declared the end of rinderpest -- only the second time a disease has been done away with.

Like guinea worm, rinderpest was ably fought by teams of dedicated health volunteers, only this time it was veterinarians that made the clear difference. In Africa, Saudi Arabia and even Mongolia they have struggled to wipe the disease off the planet and at long last the victory is celebrated. And the conditions for such a struggle were hardly ideal. To find success these veterinarians had to endure dangerous conflict situations. As one of the leader's of the movement, Gordon Scott, noted in 1998: "The major obstacle is man's inhumanity to man. Rinderpest thrives in a milieu of armed conflict and fleeing refugee masses. Until world peace is secured, the nays win the argument."

Or maybe not. Scott died in 2004, yet lived to hear of the eradication of the last known case in Kenya in 2001. Despite all the conflict that he railed against as a hindrance to the disease's removal and that still continues, science and commitment won the day.

Africa had suffered the worst under the disease, leaving 32 countries vulnerable to its spread. In South Sudan, with its water resources supplying hundreds of thousands of cattle, the disease led to starvation. But those days are now in the past.

Since 1945 rinderpest has cost a total of roughly $5 billion to eradicate, but those nations struggling with so many other scourges have at least one less to deal with. The entire enterprise has been a tribute to the United Nations and all the researchers and front-line workers that have given people in the developing world a new lease on life.

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