Africa: Killing the malaria killer
On World Malaria Day this week governments and activists will boast of millions of dollars spent on tackling the disease that still kills a child every thirty seconds somewhere in the world. But most of them are culpable of disarming our most effective weapon—insecticides such as DDT.
DDT was first used on a large scale in World War II to stop insect-borne epidemics such as typhus. It surpassed all expectations in fighting malaria around the world, saving millions of lives. In 1960s India, for example, DDT cut malaria cases from 75 million a year to less than 100,000.
DDT slashed malaria infection and deaths across southern Africa. In South Africa, DDT brought malaria cases down from 1,177 in 1946 to just 61 by 1951 in Transvaal province alone. But in 1996 South Africa stopped using DDT and by 2000 malaria deaths had increased eight-fold. Infections rose from 5,000 to more than 60,000. In 2000, South Africa reintroduced DDT indoor residual spraying (tiny doses on walls and ceilings) and the number of malaria cases and deaths dropped by a remarkable 80 per cent.
The 1960s, however, saw the rise of the Western environmentalist movement, which vilified the use of insecticides such as DDT. This helped malaria rise again, in India as in South Africa, and even now, four decades later, insecticide use is threatened by environmentalist alarmism.
For example, new research published in the British Journal of Urology International alleges a link between DDT and birth defects in boys among the Venda people in northeastern South Africa. A grave finding if true but, as with the charges thrown around by environmentalists, it does not stand up to scrutiny. The incidence among Vendas living in houses with DDT indoor residual spraying is high, at around 11 per cent, so there is a problem. But the figure for those living in houses never sprayed with DDT is also high and statistically equivalent, at 10.2 per cent.
Clearly, more research is needed but this generated typically scaremongering headlines about DDT, even though there is still no evidence that it can harm humans. Indeed, for decades DDT was used in great quantities in agriculture around the world with reckless abandon—and malaria was eradicated in the Southern US States, Southern Europe and many other regions.
This lack of evidence, however, has not prevented Western governments and international organisations from legislating against or discouraging such insecticides. South Africa is big, relatively prosperous and does not depend on aid. Weaker countries have not been able to resist pressure from aid donors and international organisations to reject DDT.
For instance, in 2005 one of the world’s most highly malarial countries, Uganda, started using DDT. Infections and deaths fell rapidly yet the programme was shut down in 2006 after statements by European Union officials in Kampala raised fears that even the tiniest residues of any insecticide on exported food would cause the EU to reject it. Ironically, growers even feared that DDT, a chemical we know does not cause cancer, would be found on tobacco, a product we know does cause cancer. This shut down a life-saving programme, with zero benefit to EU citizens. This is not just an old, regrettable, story: it has dire consequences for the future.
Although DDT is highly effective, fighting malaria requires new weapons. Yet so successful has been the anti-insecticides campaign that there has been almost no investment in new insecticides that could be used against malaria. Meanwhile, governments, foundations and companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over decades in the elusive search for a malaria vaccine. There is now only one maker of DDT.
Shamefully, tens of millions of dollars have also gone into the desperate, and fruitless, search to find some harm to humans from DDT.
Thwarting the use of insecticides that protect people from disease is unscientific, nonsensical and cruel. Defending children against a deadly, known risk should take precedence over precautionary ideology based only on unproven, theoretical risks. America’s USAID used to put pressure on some countries to reject DDT, like most donors. Now, USAID alone funds DDT use, so maybe there is hope. African governments must now stand up to the double standards of aid donors and activists who prevent the use of insecticides with fears of human harm and threats to trade.
Richard Tren is president of Africa Fighting Malaria and author (with Donald Roberts) of the book The Excellent Powder—DDT’s Political and Scientific History, launched this week. Dipo Salimonu is an Adjunct Fellow of International Policy Network, London, the economic-development think-tank.