Anti-DDT Trumps Antimalaria in the West

An op-ed by Sebastian Mallaby in today’s Washington Post hits on a topic that was once close to my liver and is now closer to my heart, enforced disarmament in the battle against malaria.

Some 500 million people still get the disease annually, and at least 1 million die, but the World Health Organization refuses to recommend DDT spraying. The U.S. government’s development programs don’t purchase any of the chemical. In June President Bush made a great show of announcing a new five-year push against malaria; DDT appears to play no part in his plans.

But the worst culprit is the European Union. It not only refuses to fund DDT spraying: In the case of at least one country, it has also threatened to punish DDT use with import restrictions.

That country is Uganda, which suffered a crippling 12 million cases of malaria in a population of 27 million in 2003. The Ugandans know perfectly well that DDT can help them: As Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute recently testified to Congress, DDT spraying in one part of the country in 1959 and 1960 reduced the prevalence of malaria from 22 percent to less than 1 percent. Ugandans also know the record in South Africa, where the cessation of DDT spraying in 1996 allowed the number of malaria cases to multiply tenfold and where the resumption of spraying in 2000 helped to bring the caseload down by almost 80 percent.

So the Ugandans, not unreasonably, would like to use DDT. But in February the European Union waved an anti-scientific flag at them. The Europeans said Uganda might need to institute a new food monitoring program to assuage the health concerns of their consumers, even though hundreds of millions have been exposed to DDT without generating any solid evidence that the chemical harms people. The E.U. proposal might constitute an impossible administrative burden on a poor country. Anti-malaria campaigners say that other African governments are wary of even considering DDT, having seen what Uganda has gone through.

Please read the rest.

I’ve only experienced the mildest form of malaria, Plasmodium vivax. It was unpleasant enough, but P. falciparum is the true killer. And it’s spreading.

UPDATE: Two discussion threads in diametrically opposed blogs question Mallaby’s take and tease out some of the finer points of the DDT vs. malaria issue. Enviro-hawk Tim Lambert argues that the E.U. is only concerned to prohibit the use of DDT on agricultural products that it imports. Everyone seems to agree that’s a dangerous and counterproductive use of DDT, in that it fosters DDT-resistant strains of malaria more quickly than localized use does and can endanger other species. So agricultural use should be banned. There seems to be much less agreement about how much and how widespread DDT resistance already is. The most effective use of DDT seems to be spraying it on the inside walls of houses or on mosquito nets. Libertarian Ron Bailey‘s piece sparks a debate about how effective DDT is relative to other chemicals, what the relative costs are, and how important human life is relative to that of other living creatures.

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