Tuesday, September 19, 2006

DDT's New Friend

September 18, 2006

The World Health Organization announced Friday that it will begin actively promoting use of the pesticide DDT to combat malaria in developing nations. Do you believe in miracles?

Malaria is the number one killer of pregnant women and children in Africa and among the top killers in Asia and South America. It's long been known that DDT is the cheapest and most effective way to contain the disease, which is spread by infected mosquitoes. But United Nations health agencies and others have for decades resisted employing DDT under pressure from anti-pesticide environmentalists. After tens of millions of preventable malarial deaths in these poor countries, it's nice to see WHO finally come to its senses.

The agency's malaria chief, Arata Kochi, told reporters that "one of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual spraying. Of the dozen or so insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT." He also said, "We must take a position based on the science and the data."

Mr. Kochi's intellectual honesty is commendable and all too rare among public health officials in this debate. For decades, the science and empirical data about DDT's effectiveness have been distorted or suppressed. Nevertheless, and Rachel Carson's scare-mongering notwithstanding, there is no evidence that DDT use in the amounts necessary to ward off malarial mosquitoes is harmful to humans, wildlife or the environment. Period.

By contrast, there's plenty of evidence -- from the U.S. and Europe to Australia, India, Sri Lanka and Brazil -- that spraying DDT is the best intervention. According to Pierre Guillet, another WHO official at Friday's press conference, South Africa temporarily stopped using DDT in 1996 because green groups were opposed, not because it wasn't working. Malaria takes a heavy toll on a country's economy by discouraging foreign investment and incapacitating otherwise productive people, so these anti-DDT alarmists have been helping to impoverish those they don't kill. There is something other-worldly, or worse, about well-heeled greens trying to deny the world's poorest people the very tool used by rich nations to eradicate this disease.

Even if WHO's decision won't change those minds, its stamp of approval on pesticide use matters in the public health world. Other organizations, ranging from the World Bank to Aid for International Development to Doctors Without Borders, look to WHO for guidance and will now likely reassess their own guidelines. The U.S. is typically the largest donor to these international agencies, and the recent efforts of Republican Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who have called for DDT intervention and more responsible allocation of aid dollars generally, no doubt played a role in WHO's decision.

One insecticide won't end malaria, and DDT's proponents don't claim it will. But by keeping more people alive and healthy, DDT can help create the conditions for the only lasting solution, which is economic growth and development. It's encouraging that even a U.N. health agency seems to have figured that out.


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