This is the fifth post in a series considering the root causes of hunger. The Millennium Development Goals serve as a helpful framework.

Millennium Development Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases

Are you familiar with guinea worm disease? It’s a parasitic worm that people get by drinking contaminated water. Here’s what happens to someone who has ingested guinea worm larva. The larva penetrates the stomach walls and grows into a worm as it moves about the body. After about a year, the person gets a painful blister that turns into an open sore. It can happen anywhere on the body, but is often on the legs. The sore can be accompanied by itching, burning, swelling, and fever. Then a full grown worm begins coming out of the sore. It can be up to 3 feet long (!!) and can emerge as little as an inch a day. It is painful and can take weeks to be rid of the whole thing. One of the only ways to relieve the pain (without pain medication, unavailable to many of the afflicted) is to soak the wound in water. This allows the worm to release more larva into the water supply and continue the cycle.

Oh. And you can have more than one worm emerging from different parts of your body at the same time.

I ask: how well would you be able to work or learn during the weeks or months it takes to get the worm(s) out? Would you be able to concentrate? Hold a job? Exercise? Cook meals? Care for your children? At best, a person’s productivity is slowed. At worst, the person is completely debilitated. And if you can’t work, you don’t make money or tend your garden or care for your family. If you can’t learn, you reduce your chances of getting the knowledge you need for a bright future. If a disease like this is afflicting several family or community members at the same time and serially, it can stunt a whole town.

According to the World Health Organization, there were some 50 million cases of guinea worm disease worldwide as recently as the 1950’s. Today, due to a major effort by the international community and affected countries to combat it, the number is under 100,000.  Tremendous progress, but this is just one disease, and many others take a similar toll on the ability of people to make a living, secure food, and end hunger.  What’s more, diseases like guinea worm, malaria, and HIV and AIDS affect the young, most productive workers in a community. In the case of AIDS, not only does productivity slow, but people in their prime working years die, leaving not only a weakened community, but orphans who need support from that community.

In places where people are already hungry and weakened, in places where they must expend inordinate time and energy just to stay alive, in places with minimal access to health care, disease can be the final blow. Helping people maintain their health is a critical component to ending hunger.

-Nancy Michaelis