The truth about malaria and DDT
By Paul Driessen
Malaria continues to be the biggest single killer of African children. However, years of effort to improve malaria control programs are finally bearing fruit.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, and hundreds of physicians, clergy and human rights advocates signed the Kill Malarial Mosquitoes NOW declaration, demanding that substantial funds be spent on indoor spraying with DDT, Artemisia-based combination therapies (ACT drugs), bed nets and other commodities – not just on conferences, reports, education and "capacity building," as important as those things also are. (See www.FightingMalaria.org for details.)
In response to legislation enacted by the United States Congress, the U.S. Agency for International Development is buying commodities and assisting with spraying programs. The new director of the World Health Organization's global malaria program has announced that indoor spraying with DDT will be an integral component of WHO's comprehensive new strategies. And mining and other companies are conducting successful anti-malaria programs that take the same approach.
DDT is not a silver bullet. However, it is a vital component of a truly integrated program to control this devastating disease. Simply put, no other chemical – at any price – can do what DDT does.
It is the cheapest, longest lasting, most effective repellant and insecticide known to man. Just spraying a tiny amount on the eaves and walls of a home, just once or twice a year, keeps 90 per cent of mosquitoes from even entering. (Even just hanging a couple strips of DDT-impregnated cloth near the door keeps half of them from coming in.) It also irritates any that do enter, so they don't bite, and kills those that land.
It's like a huge bed net over an entire household. Equally important, used this way, DDT is absolutely safe for people and the environment. In fact, it won't even get into the environment.
This is the system that South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia used to slash malaria rates by 75 per cent in less than two years. They were then able to get scarce ACT drugs to people who still got sick, and cut malaria disease and death rates by almost 95 per cent in just three years.
Just think what a similar program could do for other countries. Kenya alone loses 34,000 children below age 5 every year to malaria, according to Health Minister Charity Ngilu. (Uganda endures 70,000 deaths annually.) People who have to stay home from work because they have malaria, or must care for family members who have malaria, cost Kenya 170 million working days and billions of shillings each year.
Imagine reducing that by 75 per cent or more in Kenya alone. Over 25,000 children would live to become future farmers, scientists, political leaders, teachers, musicians and businessmen. Parents could work an additional 127 million days a year. Kenya would be far more healthy and productive. And this amazing success story could be repeated in communities and countries all over Africa.
No wonder my colleagues and I have been absolutely stunned by some of the letters and articles that have appeared recently in Kenyan and Ugandan papers. They contained some of the most fallacious claims we have ever seen regarding DDT. They would be hilarious – if so many lives weren't at stake, and the claims weren't destroying Africa's recent progress in disease control. Here are the facts.
Millions of soldiers and civilians were sprayed right on their bodies with DDT during and after World War II, to prevent malaria and typhus. After the war, DDT was sprayed in massive quantities all over the USA and Europe, to completely eradicate malaria in those countries. Millions of people (including me) played, swam or ate picnics in clouds of DDT.
World-renowned DDT expert Dr. Gordon Edwards used to eat a spoonful of DDT whenever he gave lectures about it. He finally died, at age 85 – of a heart attack, while hiking in the mountains.
No deaths, cancers or other harm (except skin rashes) were ever demonstrated. Not one replicated scientific study ever found that DDT causes abortions, birth abnormalities, tumors or reduced fertility in humans. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus banned DDT, despite his own commission's conclusion that DDT was safe for people and the environment. He never attended even one hour of the commission's extensive hearings, never read even one page of its report, and later said his decision was "political," not scientific.
In fact, the worst thing anti-pesticide activists like Greenpeace even say today is: "some researchers think DDT could be inhibiting lactation and may contribute to lactation failure and low birth weights in babies." Compare those far-fetched and minor risks to the reality of countless mothers and babies dying from malaria.
Rachel Carson did die from cancer, but there is no evidence that it was caused by DDT. Cancer is primarily a disease of middle-aged and old people in developed countries. Tragically few Africans will have to worry about it, because far too many will die from malaria and other diseases that DDT could help prevent, long before they get cancer.
As to birds, the only evidence that DDT causes thin eggshells came from faulty experiments in which birds were fed only 20 per cent of their required calcium. When Dr. Bittman did his studies again with proper calcium levels, the eggshells were normal. Ms. Carson worried about a silent spring – but there never was one anywhere in America. Even when she wrote her book, our bird populations were increasing. One writer's claim, that DDT causes birds to "shit" their eggs, is simply bizarre and preposterous.
Today, DDT is manufactured in one facility in India and one in China. It has not been produced in the United States for nearly 35 years, and we don't export it anywhere.
As malaria and DDT expert Professor Donald Roberts of the Uniformed University of the Health Sciences, points out: no WHO report claims that DDT causes brain or other tumors. Remember – the WHO, USAID, Archbishop Tutu and hundreds of doctors and disease experts support the use of DDT for malaria control. They would not do so if the chemical were so toxic.
Yes, DDT can harm fish. But modern indoor spraying programs use tiny amounts of DDT, confine it to household walls, prevent its use in agriculture, and keep it from reaching lakes and rivers.
Yes, the European Union and certain European companies and activists have threatened trade sanctions against African countries that use DDT. That is unconscionable – but an easy position for them to take, since they no longer have malaria, thanks in large part to DDT.
Instead of bowing to their blackmail, though, all African nations should challenge these threats, which put paranoia about barely detectable traces of this life-saving chemical above the lives of African parents and children. Such attitudes should not be tolerated. Access to DDT is protected by the Stockholm Convention and WHO, whose guidelines will ensure that it is used properly, to save lives and safeguard wildlife and the environment.
Friends of the Earth may say its strange notions of "sustainable development" should come first, as one writer asserts. But if its policies control decisions in Africa, the only thing that will be sustained is hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from malaria, year after year.
DDT can be a vital part of the answer to malaria. It can save millions of lives – if we let it. Sound science and real environmental ethics demand that we do so.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality, author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power · Black death, and an analyst on malaria, DDT, and other health and environmental issues.
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