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Personalities: Worm Conqueror

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Donald Hopkins, MD, has spent three decades battling diseases in Africa and Asia. In the late 1960s, he helped eradicate smallpox in Sierra Leone. Now, as vice president of health programs at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Hopkins is close to a lifelong dream: eliminating guinea worm disease. Caused by larvae, the painful affliction has tormented Africa for centuries.

On first encountering guinea worm: In my sophomore biology class, we looked at parasites. One picture showed a guinea worm coming out of someone’s body. It was a spectacular sight. I never forgot it. Later, after working on smallpox, I realized it could be prevented and indeed eradicated by decontaminating the water. That made it an irresistible target. In October 1980, I began strategizing about a global campaign to eradicate guinea worm. In 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in Asia and Africa. This year, we are likely to have less than 10,000.

On maintaining motivation: There were times I was frightened, being out in very remote areas. I am particularly afraid of snakes. What keeps me going is seeing repeatedly how people suffer and how little it takes to help them. I had been working in Sierra Leone on smallpox in the late 1960s—I went back in 1980. I was in a rural area, but it was an eerie feeling. All the time I had been in Sierra Leone, I was chasing smallpox—but here I was, not chasing smallpox. I saw a crowd of young children, yelling and screaming. It struck me that none ever had to worry about smallpox. That was gratifying.

On contracting malaria: I had malaria twice. I contracted it in the late 1960s, despite taking malaria prophylaxis. It was scary and extremely uncomfortable, but it was not as if I had cancer. I got treated for it. You don’t dwell on stuff like that. You’ll always have obstacles, so you focus on what is ahead.

On global poverty: I’m haunted by it. I think about it when I see all the wasted food in restaurants and huge servings. I think about it when I see ads on TV for things that are nowhere near necessity. I think about it when I see the trivial stuff our media is obsessed about. If only that same energy could be given to other important problems—and show how desperate people are for outside help.

—Gary Baldwin