On January 13, 2015, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited the Museum for the opening of the special exhibition Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease, which focused on worldwide efforts to eradicate diseases such as polio, malaria, and Guinea worm, a parasite The Carter Center has been working to wipe out for decades.
During his remarks, Mr. Carter announced that the worldwide number of cases of the debilitating Guinea worm disease dropped to just 126 in 2014—a decrease of more than 99.9 percent since The Carter Center, the nongovernmental organization he helped found, began leading a coordinated program to eradicate the condition in 1986.
He discussed the successes of the decades-long campaign to wipe out Guinea worm disease and the challenges that remain in the final push to bring the number of cases to zero. This feat, which now seems within reach, would make Guinea worm disease only the second human disease ever to be completely eradicated, after smallpox.
“It’s a major undertaking to eliminate a disease from everywhere in the world,” said Carter, who was joined by Museum President Ellen V. Futter; Dr. Donald Hopkins, The Carter Center’s vice-president for health programs; and Curator Mark Siddall, a parasitologist who curated Countdown to Zero. “Those last Guinea worm cases are very difficult to detect. If it still exists after 30 years, there’s a special reason [for that] in that village.”
Countdown to Zero, which focused on worldwide efforts to eradicate several devastating diseases including river blindness, malaria, and polio, helps to highlight how research, international cooperation, health education, and low-tech interventions can reduce the suffering of millions. In the case of Guinea worm disease, interrupting the life cycle of the parasite that causes it makes eradication possible.
“As a library of biodiversity, the Museum has a responsibility to our visitors to inform them about biodiversity and our relationships to it—and disease is part of that biodiversity,” said Siddall. “Some of the early work figuring out the life cycle of parasites was work that was done here. Without that knowledge, we wouldn’t be able to intercede.”
That kind of research creates a foundation for the work being done to battle disease around the world, said Museum President Ellen Futter during a panel discussion on the evening of the opening.
“Our scientists are working in many areas related to human health, pursuing leading-edge microbial research in ecology and genomics of disease, and amassing a microbial collection that is a tool in that research,” said Futter. “This approach is quite different from, but entirely compatible with, the work of The Carter Center, for whom a specific area of focus is fighting disease.”
Countdown to Zero is presented by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with The Carter Center.
Countdown to Zero is proudly supported by Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Lions Clubs International Foundation, Mectizan Donation Program, and Vestergaard.
This exhibition is made possible by the generosity of the Arthur Ross Foundation.