From Business Day (South Africa)
Malaria: North Should Buzz Off and Let South Use Chemicals
Chemical is not a human carcinogen and it works
BYLINE: Business Day (South Africa) - by Richard Tren
DATELINE: October 20, 1999
SECTION: Perspectives; Pg. 15
THREE Nobel laureates in medicine have started a debate by signing a
controversial letter calling for continued global use of DDT, the pesticide so
vilified by environmentalists the world over.
At stake are the lives and wellbeing of millions of people, mostly in poor
countries, at risk from malaria.
This week delegates at a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) conference
may vote to ban DDT and 11 other persistent organic pollutants. If they
DDT could be banned internationally by the year 2007.
While there could be valid reasons for banning many of the persistent organic
pollutants, there are very compelling reasons for not banning DDT.
Malaria is carried by mosquitoes. The most cost-effective method of controlling
malaria is to control mosquitoes by spraying the walls on which they rest with
DDT, a chemical which is toxic to these insects but not to humans.
The use of DDT has ensured that SAs malarial areas are now one-fifth the size
they were before the Second World War. The disease, however, has been on the
rise in SA and throughout the region. This is partly because of a reduction in
DDT use, as well as higher rainfall in recent years and increased migration of
people between SA and other highly malarial countries such as Mozambique.
There has been a 500% increase in malaria cases in SA in recent years. Malaria
kills about 2.7-million people worldwide and leaves another 500 million
chronically ill every year.
DDT is recognised by nearly all scientists and researchers involved with
to be the most effective pesticide in malaria control.
Donald Roberts of the Uniformed University of Health Sciences in the US has
studied the relationship between malaria and DDT use and found a strong
relationship: the more DDT is used, the lower are malaria rates.
In South America he showed that all malarial countries experienced sharply
rising rates of malaria once they reduced DDT use. Ecuador, which increased its
use of DDT, experienced a 60% decline in malaria cases. Bolivia, Paraguay and
Peru, on the other hand, stopped DDT spraying altogether in 1993 and
subsequently saw new cases rise by more than 90%.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published her book, Silent Spring, and launched the
against DDT, which resulted in its banning for agricultural use in the 1970s.
Many of the studies against DDT were, however, scientifically flawed and have
subsequently been refuted. DDT, for example, is not a human carcinogen. Bird
species actually rose during the period that DDT was used in the US.
In any event, no one is proposing that DDT be widely sprayed over agricultural
fields and wetlands, as it was in the past, but that it is allowed to be
in limited quantities inside dwellings. The amount of DDT that a US cotton
farmer would have used on a 100-acre crop in 1968 is enough to protect every
high-risk house in Guyana for a year or more.
Apart from being a humanitarian disaster, malaria imposes enormous economic
costs, mostly on the worlds poorest nations.
A recent study I just completed for the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs
(www.iea.org.uk/env/malaria.htm) estimates that the annual costs of malaria
(made up of the cost of treatment and lost productivity through illness) in
selected southern African countries exceeds $1bn, or 4% of their combined gross
Given the human and economic cost of malaria, it is understandable that many
countries are keen to continue their use of DDT.
Unfortunately though, DDT is now difficult to get hold of and countries that
would prefer to use it in malaria control, such as Botswana and Tanzania, are
forced to use more expensive alternatives.
Zimbabwe has come under pressure from, among others, tobacco farmers to
on DDT use. This is because exports might be affected if developed countries
find any trace of DDT on tobacco. The fact that tobacco contains numerous
carcinogens and that DDT has been proven not to be a carcinogen seems to have
been conveniently forgotten.
Northern countries are increasingly using environmental standards as trade
barriers against the south. As a result, in this case, millions of lives are
directly being put at risk.
The Malaria Foundation International, which is made up of more than 350
physicians, including the medical laureates mentioned above and malariologists,
published an open letter (www.malaria.org/ddt.htm) to the Unep delegates urging
them not to ban DDT until an affordable alternative is available.
The alternatives now available synthetic pyrethroids are significantly more
expensive than DDT and more complicated to administer and monitor.
The World Wide Fund for Nature says that the banning of DDT will concentrate
minds in order to find a costeffective alternative by 2007. This seems like an
unbelievably flippant attitude to the lives of the millions that are at risk
The World Health Organisation previously supported the use of DDT in vector
control. However, its new high-profile malaria initiative, Roll Back Malaria,
does not even mention house spraying and prefers to promote the development of
new drugs and a vaccine.
Efforts to develop a vaccine and new drugs are woefully underfunded. In
addition, because profits in fighting malaria are limited, private sector
research is minimal when compared with research into fighting other diseases.
Even if a successful vaccine is found in the short term it is likely to be
unaffordable to most developing nations.
The DDT debate neatly illustrates how the environmental ideals of so-called
civilised countries are pursued at the expense of developing nations that have
little or no say.
One can only hope that the recent report that two 11-year-old Boy Scouts
Island, New York, contracted malaria at a scouting camp will bring home to the
north the cost that malaria imposes on the south.
The banning of DDT must not go ahead and environmentalists must be stopped from
putting their sensibilities ahead of the lives of people in malarial
Tren is an SA-based environmental economist and research fellow at the
London-based Institute of Economic Affairs.
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