Guinea worm disease, dracunculiasis or dracontiasis, is an ancient disease with records going back over 4500 years, but until the beginning of the 20th century, little was known about its life cycle, particularly how humans became infected. In 1905, Robert Thomas Leiper was sent by the British colonial authorities to West Africa to investigate the spread of Guinea worm disease and to recommend measures to prevent it. While carrying out his investigations, he made important contributions to the aetiology, epidemiology and public health aspects of Guinea worm disease and provided definitive answers to many outstanding questions. First, he tested the validity of previous theories; second, he confirmed the role of water fleas, which he identified as Cyclops, as the intermediate hosts in the life cycle; third, he investigated the development of the parasite in its intermediate host; and fourth, he recommended measures to prevent the disease.
[The crustacean Order Cyclopoida in the Family Cyclopidae contains 25 genera, including Cyclops which itself contains over 400 species and may not even be a valid taxon. It is not known how many of these species (or indeed species belonging to related genera) can act as intermediate hosts of Dracunculus medinensis nor do we know which species Fedchenko, Leiper and other workers used in their experiments. It is, therefore, best to use the terms copepod, or copopoid crustacean rather than Cyclops in scientific texts. In this paper, these crustaceans are referred to as copepods except when referring to an original text.]
Leiper described the remarkable changes that took place when an infected copepod was placed in a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid; the copepod was immediately killed, but the Dracunculus larvae survived and were released into the surrounding water. From this, he concluded that if a person swallowed an infected copepod, their gastric juice would produce similar results. He next infected monkeys by feeding them copepods infected with Guinea worm larvae, and thus conclusively demonstrated that humans became infected by accidentally ingesting infected crustaceans. Based on these conclusions, he advocated a number of control policies, including avoidance of contaminated drinking water or filtering it, and these preventive measures paved the way for further research. The challenge to eradicate Guinea worm disease was not taken up until about seven decades later since when, with the support of a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations, the number of cases has been reduced from an estimated 3·5 million in 1986 to 25 in 2016 with the expectation that this will eventually lead to the eradication of the disease.