Bill Steigerwald

You missed the Africa Malaria Day celebration on April 25, didn't you? Perfectly understandable. Unless you're headed for a three-week safari in Kenya, malaria doesn't appear on our modern radar screens.

But for the poorest, hottest corners of the planet, malaria remains a scourge for which there is no vaccine. The incapacitating disease, caused by a parasite transmitted from humans to humans by mosquitoes, afflicts from 350 million to 500 million people a year in Asia, Africa and South America. More than 80 percent are in rural Africa.

Every year malaria kills at least 1 million humans -- nearly 3,000 a day, mostly the very young or pregnant. The real figure could be 2.5 million annual deaths. No one knows for sure.

Despite these daunting statistics, the global war against malaria may finally be taking a turn for the better. The same miracle weapon that we and most of Europe employed to rid ourselves of malaria half a century ago -- the pesticide DDT -- is starting to be used more widely in Africa.

DDT isn't foolproof but works wonders. Lightly sprayed twice a year on the inside walls of living quarters, it's like Kryptonite to the mosquitoes that carry malaria. In 1945 when India began using DDT, it had 800,000 malaria deaths a year; by 1960, it had a few thousand.

Other malarial hells were not so lucky. In the early 1970s environmentalists spooked by Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" successfully lobbied the federal government to outlaw DDT in the United States because it allegedly was killing off American eagles and was a cancer threat to humans.

It's turned out that DDT is virtually harmless to man, bird or beast. But that didn't help Africa's malaria sufferers, who for 30 years were deprived of DDT because Western relief aid was often contingent on recipient countries not using DDT. Most poor countries that needed it most stopped using it or never got it. Tens of millions died.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. People in the West -- including The New York Times -- came to their senses about bringing back DDT. Some even realized how hypocritical and immoral it was for rich First Worlders to deny poor Third Worlders access to the same pesticide that had made the West malaria-free.

A mini-miracle occurred last year when the World Health Organization reversed its 30-year anti-DDT policy and re-integrated DDT into its heretofore hapless and largely ineffective anti-malaria program.

Environmentalists are still outraged. But DDT remains the cheapest and most effective pesticide for house spraying, which is why countries like South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda are already applying DDT to fight malaria or trying to get the money to do so.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..