Where Will Malaria Be

Richard Tren | 28 May 2004
Wall Street Journal

"Where will you be?"

This ominous question, which accompanies the latest Hollywood disaster film, "The Day After Tomorrow," will no doubt have some people mulling over an appropriate answer. In the film, the earth's climate topples over a hypothetical "edge" as a result of anthropogenic global warming. This then leads to terrific global storms and a sudden ice age. Mark Gordon, one of the producers of the film, hopes that the film will "raise consciousness about the environment," a statement akin to the producers of Peter Pan saying they hope that film will raise consciousness about air travel.

However, unlike the film, the film's Web site attempts to be somewhat serious as it discusses global catastrophes associated with global warming. One scenario that it promotes is the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria. This is a popular scenario, but it's not a serious one. It's a fantasy that should be confined, along with marauding glaciers, to Hollywood plot lines.

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The notion that climate change will spread malaria to areas that were previously malaria free has increasing cachet because it seems logical. If temperatures and rainfall increase, there will be more mosquitoes and therefore, the argument goes, there will be more malaria. Yet science and the long history of man, mosquitoes and malaria belie this scenario.

A letter published this week in the medical journal The Lancet by some of the world's leading malaria experts, including Professor Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, cautions against reckless claims that global warming will affect malaria transmission. The relationship between climate and malaria is exceedingly complex, and the authors warn that we cannot rely upon simplistic models that predict increased malaria cases.

We associate malaria with hot tropical countries, but its distribution wasn't always this limited. Malaria was widespread throughout Europe and the U.S. for many centuries, despite wide climatic swings.

In Europe for example, temperatures cooled considerably during the Dark Ages, but rose again during the Middle Ages (around AD 1200) -- so much so that wines could be produced in England -- and then plummeted again during the "little Ice Age" that began in the mid-16th century and lasted for about 200 years. Despite these climatic changes, malaria transmission continued unabated. Some epidemics even occurred within the Arctic Circle.

Wealth and malaria have a far closer relationship than climate and malaria. As people in Europe and North America became wealthier, malaria started to recede. As people drained wetlands for agriculture, could afford physical barriers between themselves and mosquitoes (such as screens and glass windows) and other mosquito-control measures, malaria transmission declined.

As you read this, people, mainly children under the age of five, are dying of malaria, a preventable and curable disease. They are dying because they are too poor to afford drugs. They are dying because even if they had the money to buy the drugs, their countries are too poor to establish sufficient clinics to supply the drugs. They are dying because wealthy Western governments refuse to fund interventions that save lives, such as indoor insecticide spraying, because these governments feel that such crucial interventions don't fit in with their ideas on "environmental sustainability."

Malaria is a complex disease, but the best long-term cure for it is for people in malarial regions to become wealthy. The global-warming treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, will not help these people achieve that goal. Even pro-Kyoto scientists admit that the protocol will cost a fortune and do very little to affect global warming, and if economic growth slows to reduce carbon emissions, poor nations will have a harder time becoming wealthy through development. Poverty-related diseases will simply tighten their grip on a captive population.

As the Lancet paper on global warming and disease points out: "We understand public anxiety about climate change, but are concerned that many of these much-publicized predictions are ill-informed and misleading." If you see the film, enjoy it for what it is, a diverting spectacle, but, for the sake of millions of Africans who are at risk from diseases of poverty, reject the film's political agenda -- that slower economic growth averts disaster. We already have a disaster on our hands. It's called malaria. It kills a child every 30 seconds, and we need wealth and good science to control it.

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Where will mosquitoes be the day after tomorrow? Right where they are today, spreading disease and death. How effectively they spread that disease and death, however, depends entirely on us.

Mr. Tren is the director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria, and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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