ATLANTA (AP) — Former President Jimmy Carter on Thursday humorously called himself a traveling salesman in describing his three decades as international public health advocate.
The 88-year-old said the harder work fighting conditions like Guinea worm disease, river blindness and malaria is done by physicians and public health workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from The Carter Center. The 39th president and his wife, Rosalynn, opened the center in Atlanta in 1982, a year after Carter left the White House after a single term.
Carter spoke after receiving the CDC Foundation's annual Hero Award for building public-private partnerships to advance The Carter Center's public health projects around the world.
"I'm thankful to you for stretching my heart and stretching my mind to encompass the plight of people around the world who are suffering unnecessarily," the former president told the assembly, "and for giving me a small role to play in helping relieve their suffering."
One of The Carter Center's first major public health commitments, in partnership with CDC, was to eradicate Guinea worm disease. The center launched the program in 1986. CDC leaders had turned their attention to the malady, common in undeveloped countries that lack sources of drinking water, after small pox was eliminated.
At the outset, 3.5 million Guinea worm cases were spread across Africa and Asia. In 2011, there were 1,058 cases reported in four African nations. Through August of this year, 498 cases had been reported.
Ongoing Carter Center programs also are seeking to control malaria and lymphatic filariasis, both mosquito-borne infections; river blindness, a debilitating eye infection spread by flies; trachoma, another eye infection spread because of poor hygiene; and schistosomiasis, a parasitic condition contracted through dirty water sources.
Carter noted that none of the conditions is present in the developed world, with the threat confined to hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people.
The former president recalled that he and Rosalynn launched The Carter Center with the idea that it would become "a mini Camp David" for world leaders to come and resolve disputes. But Carter said he quickly became interested in partnering with government, not-for-profit organizations and private donors to attack health issues. Rosalynn Carter has used the center to advance mental health access and awareness, a cause she pursued when her husband was president.
Carter — who has lived longer after completing his White House tenure than any other president — said his status opened the door to hammer out agreements between The Carter Center and foreign governments.
Beyond the pomp of state welcomes, Carter said his mind is seared with images of people stricken with maladies not seen in wealthy nations.
"We went to Ghana to deal with river blindness, to a little village to give out free medicine," he said. "There was a woman holding a little baby. She was the baby's grandmother. She was only 31 years old. The little baby was the same age as one of my newest great-grandchildren. With the free medicine we were giving out, I knew we couldn't cure the grandmother's blindness, but the baby would never suffer from it."
Besides the humanitarian necessity, Carter said the eradication and control campaigns are important because they empower individuals and nations. Overall quality of life can improve because "governments don't have to provide routine interventions" and societies can focus on growth beyond simply dealing with preventable disease.
"Any illness doesn't just hurt that person," he said. "It diminishes their family, their community, their country and the world."