The 2007 World Health Assembly is wrapping up and people are commemorating the birthday of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. Meanwhile, millions of Africans are commemorating still more deaths from a disease that the chemical she vilified could help control.
I just got out of the hospital, after another nasty case of malaria. I’ve had it dozens of times. I lost my son, two sisters and three nephews to it. Fifty out of 500 children in our local school for orphans died from malaria in 2005.
Virtually every Ugandan family has buried babies, children, mothers and fathers because of this disease, which kills 100,000 of us every year. Even today, 50 years after it was eradicated in the United States, malaria is the biggest killer of African children, sending 3,000 to their graves every day.
In between convulsions and fever, I thought about the progress we’re making – and about those who would stop that progress. I ask myself, why do some people care more about minor, hypothetical risks to people or animals than about human life?
Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reversed 30 years of bad policy and reauthorized DDT to help combat malaria in Africa, by spraying it on the walls of houses to keep mosquitoes out. The World Health Organization (WHO) also came out strongly in support of DDT.
Both reviewed decades of scientific studies and concluded that using DDT this way is perfectly safe for people and the environment. So did Uganda’s Ministry of Health and National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). European Commission President Barroso said Europe supports the right of countries to use DDT, in accord with Stockholm Convention and WHO guidelines. DDT has worked in South Africa and Swaziland. USAID is now using it in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zambia. Uganda and other African countries are preparing to add DDT to indoor-spraying programs.
We don’t see DDT as a “magic bullet” that can eradicate malaria by itself. We don’t advocate outdoor spraying with it. But we strongly support spraying tiny amounts on houses – as part of comprehensive strategies that also include other insecticides, larvacides and better sanitation to control mosquito populations, Artemisninin-based combination drugs to treat patients, and bednets, education, better hospitals and sound management practices.
No other chemical, at any price, does what DDT does. It keeps mosquitoes from entering homes, irritates the few that do enter, so they don’t bite, kills those that land, and reduces malaria rates by 75% – all with a single inexpensive spraying once or twice a year.
DDT was dusted on American soldiers during World War II, to prevent malaria; and on millions of Europeans after the war, to prevent typhus. It was sprayed all over the US to protect crops and eradicate malaria. Contrary to what Ms. Carson claimed, DDT didn’t cause cancer, or decimate eagle and other bird populations.
DDT was also used 46 years ago to slash malaria rates in western Uganda’s Kanungu District. It can and must be used again – according to storage, handling and indoor spraying guidelines – to stop disease and save lives. Why do some people want to prevent its use? Pesticide Action Network exists solely to battle life-saving insecticides. The environmental movement became a powerful political force, by embracing Rachel Carson’s erroneous claims. But what about other opponents? What is wrong with them?
WHO Public Health and Environment Director Maria Neira wants to stop all use of DDT. The Uganda Network on Toxic-Free Control plans to sue NEMA, if it doesn’t stop the DDT spraying program. Both worry about its hypothetical health effects.
We wish they would worry more about malaria, and focus on DDT’s health benefits – on the diseases it can prevent, the lives it can save. Instead, they claim every imaginable health problem and deformity is due to DDT. To support their exaggerations and fables, they list articles that say there is a “link” between these problems and DDT. But as Professor Donald Roberts emphasizes, there are many more studies that show no such connection.
“After decades of research, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, there is no proof at all that DDT directly harms human health,” say Dr. Roberts. “There is extensive evidence, though, that DDT reduces disease and saves lives.” DDT opponents want to return to strategies that were a devastating failure for 30 years. Hundreds of millions of Africans got malaria. Tens of millions died. Entire countries were kept impoverished.
We say, Enough! No more malaria. No more brain damage. No more workers who can’t work, students who can’t study. No more families that can’t afford food, because they must pay for drugs and hospitals. No more death. We support bednets. But we also need insecticides to kill mosquitoes. And we want a DDT shield or “net” over entire houses in malaria-infested areas – 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to protect everyone inside, whether they are sleeping or working.
Uganda’s Vice President Bukenya, Health Minister Mallinga, NEMA Director Arymanya and Members of Parliament support DDT spraying and comprehensive programs to eradicate Killer Malaria. May people of conscience everywhere stand with us. Praise Rachel Carson, if you wish – but support DDT spraying, to reduce disease and save lives.