Adding momentum to an effort by human rights groups and environmental activists to prevent more than 1 million deaths a year, the World Health Organization (WHO) on September 15 announced it would promote indoor spraying of DDT to fight malaria in Africa.
"When I took the job last October, I asked my staff and malaria experts around the world, 'Are we using every possible weapon to fight this disease?" said Arata Kochi, director of the WHO Global Malaria Program, in a September 15 news conference. "It became apparent we were not."
Science Supports DDT
"We must take a position based on the science and the data," said Kochi in a September 15 press statement. "One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying. Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT."
"The scientific and programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment," Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, agreed in the press statement. "Indoor residual spraying (IRS) is useful to quickly reduce the number of infections caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. IRS has proven to be just as cost-effective as other malaria prevention measures, and DDT presents no health risk when used properly."
Bush Program Supplies Funds
Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, coordinator of President George W. Bush's recently announced $1.2 billion African Malaria Initiative, supported the WHO decision.
"I anticipate that all 15 of the country programs of President Bush's $1.2 billion commitment to cut malaria deaths in half will include substantial indoor residual spraying activities, including many that will use DDT," said Ziemer in the WHO press statement.
"Because it is relatively inexpensive and very effective, USAID supports the spraying of homes with insecticides as a part of a balanced, comprehensive malaria prevention and treatment program," Ziemer said.
U.S. Ban Defied Evidence
After successfully wiping out malaria in the United States, DDT was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972. The ban resulted from environmental activists' opposition to DDT following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, which alleged outdoor spraying of DDT was a threat to human health and wildlife.
After the presentation of substantial evidence and expert testimony in 1971-1972 hearings, EPA administrative law judge Edmund Sweeney determined DDT was safe. Nevertheless, EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, who had raised funds for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) activist group, sided with EDF and banned DDT anyway. Other nations soon followed the U.S. lead.
Green Activists Split
Today, DDT has split the environmental activist community, with groups such as the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense now supporting indoor DDT spraying. Other groups, such as the World Wildlife Federation and Beyond Pesticides, oppose the reintroduction of DDT.
Paul Driessen, a senior fellow at the Congress of Racial Equality, put the malaria death toll in perspective in an interview for this article. "In the country of Uganda alone, 100,000 people die from malaria each and every year. This is the equivalent of a full jetliner with 275 people slamming into the nation's Rwenzori Mountains every day of the year.
"In addition to all the needless deaths, countless millions are too sick to go to work or to school," Driessen noted. "Other millions must stay home to care for sick family members. Is it any wonder that Sub-Sahara Africa is, and remains, one of the poorest regions on Earth?"
James M. Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News