Last Chance for DDT

Roger Bate | 05 Nov 2007
Wall Street Journal

Thanks to the pragmatism of African health officials and the efforts of some in the U.S. government, the insecticide DDT is still repelling and killing mosquitoes in Africa nations, saving thousands of people from malaria and other infectious diseases each year. But its days may be numbered. While the Bush administration and the World Health Organization have argued articulately in favor of DDT over the past two years, so-called environmentalists and those companies selling alternatives to DDT are pushing to prevent it from being deployed.

President Bush launched the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI) in 2005 with the explicit aim of using all the best methods for preventing the disease. As a result, last year DDT was procured with taxpayer funds for use indoors in tiny amounts in Zambia. The tactic, known as indoor residual spraying, or IRS, is cheap and highly effective, repelling and killing mosquitoes before they can bite and transmit disease while avoiding widespread, outdoor spraying. (The PMI has not procured this insecticide for any other nation, but has funded alternatives to DDT, such as deltamethrin, in Uganda, Angola, Tanzania and Rwanda.)

But developing nations are skittish. Their populations have been scared by environmentalists into thinking DDT causes cancer and birth defects; and their farmers have been frightened by EU officials and segments of the Western chemical industry into believing their crop exports will be boycotted. As a result, many African leaders have delayed re-introduction of DDT, perhaps indefinitely. Over the past three years, for example, two different Ugandan health ministers have wanted to deploy DDT indoors, but fearful of Western trade reprisals, their farmers have blocked all attempts to do so.

Meanwhile, vast swathes of the anti-malaria community, including the malaria teams within national donor agencies, are quietly opposed to DDT. Agencies include insecticide spraying in their literature, but then run No-Spray programs. Aid agencies -- including UNICEF and the World Bank -- have steered clear of DDT, choosing instead to support anti-malaria experiments such as mosquito bed nets for the past decade. The managements of the donor agencies offer spurious explanations as to why DDT and indoor spraying in general shouldn't be used...

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An extended version of this piece in the American.com is available in full at: http://fightingmalaria.org/article.aspx?id=938