Marketing can eradicate disease–without using medicine

This admittedly icky medical story is on the verge of a very happy ending.

In 1986, an estimated 3.5 million people in 21 African and Asian countries were infected with guinea worm. The worm is a disgusting but smart parasite. Its larvae live in stagnant water sources. After people drink the stagnant water, the larvae grow inside the human gut up to a length of one meter.

After about a year, the grown worm then leaves the human body by slowly creating a lesion in the skin and exiting through the wound. This process is agonizing and can takeĀ  weeks. One way to relieve the pain is to soak the lesion in water, where the worm then lays its eggs and perpetuates the infection cycle.

There is no known medical cure or vaccine for guinea work infection.Infection isn’t fatal, but it can disable people for months at a time, especially during peak agricultural harvest times.

Since 1986 the Carter Center has spearheaded the effort reduce guinea worm infection worldwide. Along with many national and NGO partners, the Carter Center has pursued a multifaceted approach that relies heavily on three marketing tactics:

  • promote the message for people with an active guinea work infection to stay out of any water source
  • promote the habit of always filtering water through a simple cloth sieve to remove any guinea worm larvae
  • design and distribute an affordable and reusable drinking straw filter that people can use when they need to drink directly from a stagnant water source.

At the end of 2012, 36 years after starting this campaign, the Carter Center announced that the number of total guinea worm infections reported worldwide stood at just 542 in four African countries. Six guinea worm countries have received World Health Organization certification for having eradicated the parasite. Another 11 have stopped transmission.

Guinea worm infection is very close to becoming the second disease, after small pox, to be eradicated from the human population. And eradication will happen without a medical cure, thanks in large part to a well-executed program of product design, distribution, and promotion.

Given the current rising cost of public health care, how do you think we should apply marketing to improve health while controlling costs?

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