Monday, October 10, 2005

Sebastian Mallaby on DDT and malaria in Africa

I cannot overstate how astonished and angered I have long been at the way in which African lives are lost to malaria because of the refusal of the rich West, the US but particularly the EU, to contemplate the use of DDT. As Sebastian Mallaby puts it with his customary incisiveness today in the Washington Post, here:

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Look Who's Ignoring Science Now

By Sebastian Mallaby

Monday October 10, 2005; A19, Washington Post

The flip side of Bush cronyism is hostility toward experts -- toward people who care about what's what rather than who's who. Economists have depressingly little influence on the Bush economic policy. Climate scientists are incidental to the Bush climate-change policy. Health experts seldom decide issues like the provision of clean needles to HIV-vulnerable drug addicts or poor countries' access to generic AIDS drugs. But it's not just the Bush administration that spurns data and evidence. Consider the case of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, on which the Bush administration is marginally better than the European Union.

DDT, to give that chemical its more familiar name, works miracles against diseases that are spread by insects. During the Second World War, vast quantities of the stuff were dusted over troops and concentration-camp survivors to kill the body lice that spread typhus. Later, DDT was used widely in Latin America to beat back dengue and yellow fever. But the chemical's noblest calling is to combat malarial mosquitoes. In the early 20th century, Dunklin County, Missouri, had a higher rate of malarial mortality than Freetown, Sierra Leone. Between 1947 and 1949, DDT was sprayed on the internal walls of nearly 5 million American houses, and at the end of that process malaria had ceased to pose a significant threat in the United States.

DDT also helped to eliminate malaria in Europe and parts of Asia, and in 1970 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the chemical had prevented 500 million deaths. And yet, despite that astounding number, DDT has all but disappeared from the malaria arsenal. Some 500 million people still get the disease annually, and at least 1 million die, but the World Health Organization refuses to recommend DDT spraying. The U.S. government's development programs don't purchase any of the chemical. In June President Bush made a great show of announcing a new five-year push against malaria; DDT appears to play no part in his plans.

But the worst culprit is the European Union. It not only refuses to fund DDT spraying: In the case of at least one country, it has also threatened to punish DDT use with import restrictions.

That country is Uganda, which suffered a crippling 12 million cases of malaria in a population of 27 million in 2003. The Ugandans know perfectly well that DDT can help them: As Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute recently testified to Congress, DDT spraying in one part of the country in 1959 and 1960 reduced the prevalence of malaria from 22 percent to less than 1 percent. Ugandans also know the record in South Africa, where the cessation of DDT spraying in 1996 allowed the number of malaria cases to multiply tenfold and where the resumption of spraying in 2000 helped to bring the caseload down by almost 80 percent.

So the Ugandans, not unreasonably, would like to use DDT. But in February the European Union waved an anti-scientific flag at them. The Europeans said Uganda might need to institute a new food monitoring program to assuage the health concerns of their consumers, even though hundreds of millions have been exposed to DDT without generating any solid evidence that the chemical harms people. The E.U. proposal might constitute an impossible administrative burden on a poor country. Anti-malaria campaigners say that other African governments are wary of even considering DDT, having seen what Uganda has gone through.

Why does Europe impede Uganda's fight against malaria? The standard answer starts with "Silent Spring," the book that helped launch the environmental movement in the 1960s and that painted a scary picture of DDT's potential impact on the food chain. But this is only half right. The book's overblown claims led to the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 and its disappearance from aid-funded programs thereafter. But "Silent Spring" was really about the dangers of large-scale agricultural use of DDT, not the limited spraying of houses. Today mainstream environmental groups concede that in the context of malarial countries, the certain health benefits of anti-malarial spraying may outweigh the speculative environmental risks.
So the sin of the environmental movement -- at least of its more responsible exponents -- is not that it's flat wrong on this issue. Instead, it is more subtle. Environmentalists think it's their responsibility to campaign against the damage done by toxic substances, but not to campaign against the damage done by the over-regulation of substances that actually aren't very toxic. Of course, the environmentalists' credibility in calling for necessary regulation would be enhanced if they were willing to denounce unnecessary regulation. But you don't hear them yelling about the European Union's absurd position on Uganda.

The result is that there's no counterweight to consumers' food-safety paranoia, and politicians refuse to countenance DDT spraying "just to be on the safe side." This cowardice is no different from the Bush administration's indifference to scientific sense on climate change, though you won't catch the environmentalists saying that. And the consequences are rather more immediate. Think what being on the "safe side" means to malaria's victims.

mallabys@washpost.com

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