The Corner

The U.N. and Malaria Control

Malaria kills millions of people every year, but the number of deaths has gone down recently. The United Nations is claiming that its “environmentally sound” interventions — such as planting trees around houses — deserve credit.

However, don’t start sending trees to Africa quite yet, because Africa Fighting Malaria’s Richard Tren and Donald Roberts have delved into these claims and found them baseless. They just published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal on the topic. Here is the story as explained to me by Tren:

The Stockholm Convention is a UN Environment Program convention that regulates the use of DDT. The financial mechanism of this convention is the Global Environment Facility (which is a UN partnership and housed at the World Bank) and it is funneling millions of taxpayers’ dollars into projects to find alternatives to DDT. Their first project was in Mexico and Central America. Between 2004 and 2007 they ran demonstration projects to show that you can control malaria without any insecticides and instead put in place various ‘environmental’ interventions such as planting trees and using fish to eat mosquito larvae. As with any good experiment, they set up controls where they had none of these environmental interventions. At the end of the project they claimed an extraordinary 63% reduction in malaria cases and attributed it to their interventions. We looked more closely at the data and other reports and found that in reality there was no difference between their demonstration areas and the controls. The epidemiological review found that their project showed nothing – yet they claimed great success.

What accounts for this? Well, these UN officials ignored their own experimental design and the controls and just looked at malaria rates in the demonstration areas. Malaria cases did indeed come down, but this was due to the widespread distribution of malaria medicines by health officials in these countries — it was completely unrelated to their ‘environmentally sound’ interventions, which is why they ignored the controls. Their own evaluation and the epidemiological assessment said that their experiments should be re-done – yet the officials seemingly ignored this and just came out with these great claims of success. This matters a great deal because they are using these false data to claim that malaria can be controlled without insecticides and are attempting to influence malaria control in other parts of the world.

In addition to publishing false data, these environmental agencies have boldly and publicly said that they seek to reformulate the WHO Global Malaria Program so that it is more focused on eliminating DDT and other insecticides. The WHO’s Global Malaria Program though is focused on eliminating malaria and quite rightly doesn’t want to eliminate the very tools it needs to achieve its goals. 

The bottom line: Malaria has declined, but it had nothing to do with the actions of these U.N. agencies.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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