Film Premiere Sheds Light on the “Epic Struggle to drive an Ancient Enemy into Extinction”
By Brittany Clark on Monday, October 25th, 2010
On Monday night, October 18th, the National Geographic Society and The Carter Center co-hosted the premiere screening of the new documentary feature film “Foul Water Fiery Serpent” by non-profit production company, Cielo Productions. Among those in attendance at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC were distinguished guest speakers for a post-film panel discussion, as well as health workers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who have been an integral part of the Guinea worm eradication project.
Terry Adamson, the executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, said in his opening remarks, “It is a difficult story to tell but an important story.” In a world that is used to associating Africa with hardship, this powerful and hopeful documentary picks up the story just as health workers and local communities are winning the fight against an ancient disease. It finds them on the precipice of completely eradicating from the planet, for only the second time in history (the first being smallpox), a disease that afflicts only humans.
Dracunculiasis, more commonly known as Guinea worm, is a horrific parasitic disease that once spread across 20 countries from Senegal to Pakistan. When The Carter Center first took on this mission in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases. Stories of the disease’s disabling misery have been known for thousands of years—from Ancient Egypt where scientific evidence of Guinea worm has been discovered, to the theory that Guinea worm is the “fiery serpent” that afflicted the Israelites in the Old Testament.
Today, due to the dedication of foreign and local health workers, the number of cases in the world is said to be less than 3000. As the documentary depicts, this is due largely to the work of technical assistants from The Carter Center fighting on the front lines for over 20 years. As there is no known cure for Guinea worm, and the only treatment is to painfully and extremely slowly extract the two to three foot long round worm that grows inside the victim’s body, this massive eradication effort has relied completely on preventative measures. Guinea worm is contracted by drinking water contaminated by the worm’s larvae, so efforts start on the most basic level. Workers focus on educating locals about the disease, placing a chemical in water sources to temporarily kill the worm’s larvae, and distributing water filter screens and water filter drinking pipes to communities.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Corey Farrell (Morocco, 02-03) joined the Ghana Guinea Worm Eradication Program (GGWEP) as a Technical Advisor in 2005 and worked in the background of “Foul Water Fiery Serpent” helping out the film crew. She was present at the premiere with colleagues from the program and said, “It was great to be able to laugh with each other remembering funny moments from the film and seeing friends, coworkers and patients on the big screen. The GWEP program was the greatest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.” Farrell calls the work she did “a privilege” and says, “It was through another Morocco RPCV that I came to work with The Carter Center. Peace Corps built the foundation for me to be successful in Ghana and GWEP.”
Guinea worm still remains in 4 African countries: Sudan, Mali, Ghana, and Ethiopia. Guest panelist, Dr. Donald Hopkins, who directs health programs at The Carter Center, said, “We’re confident transmission is over in Ghana. By this time next year, I believe we’ll only be talking about Southern Sudan.” The documentary depicts a wide variety of obstacles that have frustrated the workers over the years, from a bloody civil war in Sudan that killed and displaced millions to ancient local beliefs that the worms are a punishment sent from the gods.
Perhaps the greatest message one can take from this film is what these prevention and eradication efforts mean for the struggle against other diseases. “Foul Water Fiery Serpent” and the panel discussion made it clear that specific guidelines are necessary for a project like this to be successful. Dr. Hopkins said one must “use village volunteers, respect the communities. We have to change people’s way of thinking about their own environment.” Health workers continue to work on total eradication, including one star of the film and RPCV, Adam Weiss, who is currently assisting in Ethiopia.
Terry Adamson concluded the evening by telling the audience, “You need to go tweet, go blog, go… tag—whatever it is you do, and tell people about this.”
“Foul Water Fiery Serpent” has won numerous awards at various film festivals. More information, including the full trailer can be found here.