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For Mali Health Minister, Guinea Worm Campaign is Personal

  • Mali Minister of Health Dr. Marie Madeleine Togo, dressed in white, visits a village where Guinea worm disease no longer exists. Under her leadership and in partnership with The Carter Center, the disease is on the brink of being eliminated in Mali. (Photo: The Carter Center/ S. Moussa)

Dr. Marie Madeleine Togo is the minister of health for the Republic of Mali, responsible for protecting her almost 17 million fellow citizens from all kinds of diseases and dangers. That covers a lot of people and myriad maladies, but her work to eliminate Guinea worm disease goes beyond a professional interest in public health.

At the conclusion of the 2016 annual program review at The Carter Center, when health program partners from all over the world gathered in Atlanta to discuss progress and strategies, Togo confided her own family’s experience with the disease.

“Some of you may giggle when I tell you that I am the best-placed person to speak of the fight against Guinea worm in Mali,” she told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and dozens of her peers. 

When the program started in Mali in 1992, that country had 16,024 recorded cases of Guinea worm in 1,164 villages, she said, and half of the cases were in Dogon county, where the health minister is originally from. As of the end of 2015, Mali had detected only five cases — among the last 22 in the world, whereas once there were millions. Dogon county now is free of Guinea worm.

“It was a true scourge in our area,” Togo said. “We called it the illness of empty silos because we are an agricultural people, and the cases would occur during field work seasons; it wasn’t unusual to see three, four, or five people in a family affected by Guinea worm. Can you imagine? These families wouldn’t be able to harvest their fields. Because of Guinea worm, we had families, sometimes half an entire village, suffering food insecurity.”

For the health minister, this was a first-person history.

“I narrowly escaped the Guinea worm,” she told her hushed listeners. As young girls, Togo and her sister would fetch water for their family. However, “I’m afraid of water,” she confessed. “When I go to the sea shore, I sit down and say I can’t go further. It was my sister who would go get water for herself and for me, and she is the one who got Guinea worm. I escaped because I was afraid of water and used my headscarf to filter the water I consumed.”

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Togo grew up to become a physician and is now the head of the Department of Health and Public Hygiene of Mali. She said Malians have great respect for The Carter Center and its founders, who have helped them reach the brink of wiping out the ancient disease.

“You cannot imagine the joy that people in my village will feel when I go home and show them my picture next to President Carter — what an event!” she said. “Everyone in my delegation is here to really bear witness to the great gratitude that we feel for President Carter and his entire team who fought for us to arrive at this point where we are now.”

She noted that Mali’s culture has a ceremonial mask called a ciwara (pronounced "tchee-wah-rah").

“That’s a mask that is given in recognition of bravery and courage, perseverance, a battle waged, and especially a victory. We will do everything possible so that in three years we can come back here to Atlanta with the ciwara, which I would really like to give to President Carter. Thank you so much to The Carter Center.” 

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