On a planet that aches for good news, here is a reason to cheer: Millions of people who otherwise might die, now will stay alive.
The World Health Organization on September 15 issued new guidelines calling for DDT to play “a major role” in deterring and killing mosquitoes, which spread malaria. Each year, this debilitating, often deadly disease ails some 500 million people and kills about one million human beings, mainly poor Africans, Asians, and Latins under age five.
WHO malaria chief Dr. Arata Kochi said: “Help save African babies, as you help save the environment.” WHO’s new policy is a major boon for millions in the Third World and a major triumph for a cadre of free-market activists who relentlessly have pursued this cause.
Malaria impedes blood flow to major organs, including the brain. Those it does not kill often remain listless and unproductive. WHO estimates that malaria costs poor nations $12 billion annually in unperformed work, unmanufactured goods, and unattracted foreign investment.
Dichloro-diphenyl-tricholoroethane, more mercifully called DDT, foils the mosquitoes that carry malaria. “If it is sprayed just twice a year on the inside walls of homes, it keeps 90 percent of mosquitoes from entering,” says Fiona Kobusingye-Boynes, coordinator of the New York-based Congress of Racial Equality’s Uganda office. (Full disclosure: I have spoken at several CORE events.) “It also irritates any mosquitoes that do come in, so they don’t bite, and kills any that land. No other chemical, at any price, does all that.”
Indoor DDT spraying reduced Zambia’s malaria cases and deaths by 75 percent in just two years.
South Africa’s before-and-after experience is even more dramatic. Yielding to environmentalists’ pressure, South Africa abandoned DDT in 1996. Malaria cases soared from about 5,000 in 1996 to some 60,000 in 2001. Malaria deaths climbed from about 50 to about 425 over that period.
South Africa resumed indoor DDT spraying in 2001. That public-health campaign cut malaria’s toll by 80 percent within 18 months. By 2004, only about 5,000 South Africans contracted malaria, and just 50 or so died from it. Continued DDT spraying, coupled with modern ACT drugs (Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies) slashed malaria’s impact by an astonishing 96 percent within three-and-a-half years of DDT’s reintroduction.
As an added bonus, DDT also prevents mosquitoes from spreading yellow fever, dengue fever, and plain, old itchy bites.
Some environmentalists fear that reviving DDT could harm fish and fowl, as ecologist Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Largely in response to Carson and concerns about eagles, the EPA banned DDT in the U.S. in 1972. The chemical quickly fell into disfavor, and malaria steadily expanded its lethal legacy. Since 1972, malaria has killed some 50 million people. Scientists debate, however, whether DDT truly threatened bald eagles by thinning their eggshells to the breaking point.
“DDT opponents choose birds over little boys and girls, in a false dichotomy that requires the sacrifice of neither,” says DDT proponent Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute. WHO and other aid groups plan only for trained public-health workers to spray biennially inside mud huts and cinder-block dwellings. Using crop dusters to bomb cotton fields with DDT, as America once did, is not in the cards. This should leave feathers unruffled.
Some ecologists also say DDT is unnecessary and, instead, recommend pesticide-treated bed nets. They work just fine — if one stays in bed. The answer is to use bed nets during sleep and DDT for times when potential malaria victims are indoors, but out of bed.
While DDT advocates say there is no evidence that it endangers humans, especially in the small quantities needed for malaria control, critics contend that it may reduce the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers and/or cause babies to have low birth-weights. Compared to a million malaria deaths annually, mainly among the very young, this is like blocking a heart attack victim from an ambulance because he could experience a deadly traffic accident en route to an emergency room. That’s a risk worth taking.
Since the late 1990s, members of CORE, Africa Fighting Malaria, and the Kill Malarial Mosquitoes NOW! Coalition have penned piles of articles, organized dozens of meetings, lobbied scores of international relief officials, and delivered countless speeches — always calling for DDT to be a key anti-malaria tool. They circulated a pro-DDT petition that attracted the signatures of Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and F.W. de Klerk of South Africa, “Green Revolution” pioneer Dr. Norman Borlaug, and some 400 other prominent citizens.
“AFM’s work (both independently and as a leader of myriad advocacy groups) is one of the primary reasons why WHO has finally taken a vital stand in favor of DDT,” explains U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, MD (R., Okla.), a leading congressional DDT supporter. “No legislative or oversight efforts in the authorizing or appropriations processes could have been as successful without AFM.”
While some liberals have joined this cause, its chief proponents have been free-marketeers like the University of Ottawa’s Amir Attaran; CORE’s Fiona and Cyril Boynes, Paul Driessen, and Niger and Roy Innis; and AFM’s Richard Tren. While these citizens could have fought for tax cuts and trade agreements, they instead stuck with this important but unglamorous cause.
So, why should Americans care about this? The Kill Malarial Mosquitoes NOW! Coalition’s Declaration of the Informed and Concerned persuasively argues that U.S. support for DDT promotes American interests:
Deploying DDT in developing countries is good for the United States. Cutting malaria and other mosquito-borne disease rates: (1) permits strides in education, individual productivity, and economic growth in Africa and elsewhere — reducing foreign aid claims on U.S. politicians and taxpayers; (2) eliminates or quells the kinds of misery and non-productivity that often underlie regional unrest and result in requests for U.S. military intervention; and (3) diminishes the ever-present danger of outbreaks, and even pandemics, of exotic, insect-borne diseases in the United States as a result of global travel by infected persons.
Probably no other single action by the United States has the potential for saving more lives, reducing or eliminating more disease, curtailing more human misery, and promoting greater development and prosperity than support for the use of DDT to control malaria.
As a CORE-Uganda t-shirt reads: “DDT is a weapon of mass survival.” Still, it is no panacea. An anti-malaria vaccine remains appealing, but elusive. For now, thanks to a focused cadre of activists, the WHO’s endorsement should help DDT reach millions who it will shield from early death. As Winston Churchill once said: “Seldom have so many owed so much to so few.”
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.