Malaria Fears at Planned DDT Ban
BYLINE: By John Tierney
DATELINE: August 30, 1999
SECTION: Guardian Home Pages; Pg. 1
BYLINE: By Sarah Boseley - Health Correspondent
More than 350 of the world's leading experts in malaria have signed an open
letter of protest against plans for a global ban on the pesticide DDT, which
they say will lead to millions more people dying in the developing world from
The 371 doctors, health economists and scientists, who include three Nobel
laureates, warn of the consequences if the United Nations Environment Programme
outlaws DDT along with a range of other pesticides known as persistent organic
pollutants in a treaty to be negotiated next week.
Pushing for the ban are environmental groups, led by the Worldwide Fund for
Nature (WWF), which argues that alternatives will be found to combat malaria
before the ban becomes effective in 2007. It says the deadline will concentrate
But specialists in the disease say cases and deaths have already risen
was outlawed in the western world in the 70s, in turn putting pressure on
developing countries not to use it.
DDT, sprayed on the interior of homes, is a cheap and effective deterrent
mosquito whose bite spreads the infection. Nothing yet developed works as well
or is so easy to use, say the experts who signed the letter.
They lament the head-on clash between health experts and environmentalists,
saying they too want rid of DDT but not until alternatives are in place.
The malaria experts accept DDT does environmental damage but accuse WWF of
overstating the dangers to humans. While pesticide residues are found in breast
milk, only one study - not two as WWF states on its website - has claimed DDT
may be carcinogenic. The other six found no evidence DDT was implicated in
WWF says it is more concerned about the possible effects on the immune system,
based on evidence of what DDT does to wildlife and lactation in women.
"While it is true that we don't know every last risk of using DDT, we know very
well what the risk of malaria is - and on balance malaria is far, far more
deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT," said Amir Attaran,
director of the Malaria Project in Washington. He and the Malaria Foundation
International organised the open letter.
"We are not in love with DDT. But the reality is that if you try to get rid of
DDT without guaranteeing that money will be available for alternatives,
"If western countries like the US or UK want the environmental benefit of
ban, let them pay for it. Africa, Asia and South America have neither the
technology nor money to research and implement alternatives to DDT. The rich
countries do. For them to advocate a DDT ban while holding tight the purse
-strings for those alternatives is obscene."
Among the eminent tropical medicine and public health specialists who have
signed is Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate in medicine who 30 years ago
supported a ban on DDT but feels the threat of malaria today outweighs the evil
of the pesticide. Two other Nobel laureates in medicine, Peter Doherty and
Murad, and Wallace Peters, King Faisal International Prize laureate, a
malariologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have also
Other signatories include Wen Kilama, director of the African Malaria Vaccine
Testing Network, a past president of the World Federation of Public Health
Associations and chair of the World Health Organisation's expert group on DDT
and malaria; Jeffrey Sachs, professor of development economics at Harvard; and
Mary Galinski, professor of parasitology at Emory university in Atlanta,
Georgia, and president of the Malaria Foundation International.
In their letter, the doctors and scientists say that, although they agree DDT
must one day be phased out, 'we also believe that human life must not be
endangered in reaching that goal. In our view, setting a deadline for the
elimination of DDT - whether that deadline is in 2007 or some other date -
unacceptably endangers health in countries with malaria'.
They propose an immediate ban on agricultural use, which would be extended to
malaria control only when western countries have put effective, affordable
alternatives in place.
Prof Kilama, based in Tanzania, says that although DDT is cheap it is still not
cheap enough for much of sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is most deadly. The
chances of the developed world investing more money to find other means of
controlling malaria are slight, he feels.
Chris Curtis, a medical entomologist at the London School of Hygiene and
Tropical Medicine, said: 'DDT is the cheapest insecticide and what I feel will
happen is - as has happened several times already - if they can't use DDT they
won't feel they can afford to replace it, so they will simply cut down on the
total area that gets vector (mosquito) control."
That has happened in India, which is reducing its use of DDT, he said, and in
some Latin American countries.
WWF insists there is no risk of lives being lost if the ban is agreed. Clifton
Curtis said: "We set an end-date as a motivational target. In our view, if you
don't set a target you don't get decision-makers to focus on putting the money
into the alternatives that are needed."
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