Impact of Anti-DDT Campaigns on Malaria Control

Donald Roberts | 24 Feb 2024
Outlooks on Pest Management

Public health insecticides have greatly improved human welfare. In the past century, insecticides were deployed strategically to control numerous human plagues, but successes in those endeavours brought new and unforeseen challenges. As insecticides rose to prominence in disease control through the mid-20th century, environmentalists and population control advocates increasingly targeted insecticides in general, and DDT in particular, for elimination. The goal of anti-insecticide advocacy was to use propaganda and emotional arguments to convince people insecticides were dangerous and their use must be stopped. Backed by richly funded environmental advocacy and supported by science writers of the popular press, the movement created a backlash against DDT and other beneficial insecticides. Successes of anti-insecticide activism, and anti-DDT activism in particular, led to public health programs being abandoned around the world - and suffering of epic proportions. Anti-insecticide activism is an even stronger force today. Indeed, it seems that anti-insecticide advocates are even more determined to deny people in developing countries protections from disease and death that only insecticides can provide. Because of their activism, the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a resolution (WHA 50.13) in May 1997 that calls on countries to reduce reliance on use of insecticides for disease control. Then, in 1998, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) began negotiations for a Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS) treaty targeting DDT and 11 other chemicals for global elimination. The start-up of those negotiations stimulated malaria scientists and other public health professionals to mount a global campaign to defend the use of DDT in disease control programmes. The public health campaign was successful and DDT was listed on Annex B of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which allowed its continued use. Yet, despite the campaign's success, anti-DDT and anti-insecticide advocacy is unabated in UNEP, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union, and, to lesser extent, in public agencies financing disease control programs. As a result, DDT production facilities are being closed and countries that make appropriate and effective use of DDT for disease control are pressured by anti-DDT advocacy groups and are being enticed by financial mechanisms of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to stop. WHA resolution 50.13 and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants are only the most recent signs of anti-insecticide groups successfully eliminating disease control programmes over the past half century. This progress was achieved by unrestrained use of fear tactics and misinformation by anti-insecticide advocacy. Indeed, the use of fear was, and still is, the sine qua non of the anti-DDT movement. Anti-DDT propaganda typically claimed that insecticide caused all manner of harm to human health. Readily embraced and trumpeted by the popular press, the claims, in reality, never satisfied even the most minimal cause-effect criteria. These criteria are discussed in depth.

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