Oh, not outwardly anti-Africa, but stupidly so.
The extreme right-wing Heritage Foundation lashed out at health care workers and scientists fighting malaria in Africa and Asia for World Malaria Day, April 25 (HF’s post showed up on May 5). If these malaria fighters really were smart, HF’s Jane Abel wrote, they’d just poison Africa with DDT instead of protecting children with bednets and working to improve medical care. According to Abel, DDT is safe for everyone but mosquitoes, and more effective than anything else malaria fighters use — so they are stupid and venal, she asserts, for not using DDT.
Here’s her post:
Environmentalists celebrated World Malaria Day last week (and Earth Day the week prior). Meanwhile, thousands of African children died of malaria.
While these activists may make themselves feel like they’re saving the world, they are ignoring the best possible solution to Africa’s malaria problem: the use of DDT to wipe out the Anopheles mosquito.
Even though the World Health Organization resumed promotion of DDT in September 2006—realizing it had the best track record for saving the lives of 500 million African children—environmentalists are still emphasizing the use of bed nets instead. DDT treatments almost completely eradicated the disease in Europe and North America 50 years ago, but today an African child dies every 45 seconds of malaria.
Providing sub-Saharan Africans with bed nets has had far from acceptable success in delivering the amount of protection needed from mosquitoes. The World Bank touts the fact that 50 percent of children in Zambia are now sleeping under nets as a good thing, but what about the other half who are left defenseless against a killer disease? The Democratic Republic of the Congo had only 38 percent of children under nets in 2010.
One would question why, in the 21st century, people should have to live inside of a net in order to be safe from malaria. The world has a better solution, and it’s not the quarantine of African infants. Dr. John Rwakimari, as head of Uganda’s national malaria program, described DDT, which is nontoxic to humans, as “the answer to our problems.”
World Malaria Day 2011 had the theme of “Achieving Progress and Impact” and aims to have zero malaria deaths by 2015. If the world really wants to make progress and increase the number of lives saved from malaria, it needs to embrace for Africans the best possible technologies available today, and that means DDT.
Here’s my response, which I predict will not show up at HF’s blog in any form*:
DDT is toxic to humans — just not greatly and acutely so. Ms. Abel should be aware of recent studies that indicate even limited, indoor use of DDT in the end produces a death toll similar to malaria. But we digress on just one of the errors assumed by Ms. Abel.
If DDT could wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes, WHO would not have slowed or stopped its use in 1965, years before anyone thought about banning the stuff. By 1965 it was clear that overuse of DDT in agriculture had bred mosquitoes that are resistant and even immune to DDT. Jonathan Weiner noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Beak of the Finch, that today every mosquito on Earth carries at least a few copies of the alleles that allow mosquitoes to digest DDT as if it were a nutrient.
DDT cannot be a panacea for malaria.
Please do not forget that malaria is a parasite disease, and that mosquitoes are only the carriers of it. To truly eradicate malaria, we need to cure the humans — and if we do that, the mosquitoes do not matter. With no infected humans, mosquitoes have no well of disease to draw from. Without infected humans, mosquitoes cannot spread malaria.
Only 38 percent of children in Congo sleep under bednets? I’ll wager that’s twice the percentage of kids that were ever protected from malaria in Congo by DDT. In actual tests in Africa over the past decade, bednets have proven to reduce malaria by 50 to 85 percent; DDT, on the other hand, reduces malaria only 25 to 50 percent under the best conditions. If we have to go with one and not the other, bednets would be the better choice. Nets are much, much cheaper than DDT, too. DDT applications must be repeated every 6 months, at a cost of about $12 per application per house. Nets cost about $10, and they last five years. Nets protect kids for $2 a year, better than DDT; DDT protects kids for $24 a year (that’s 12 times the cost), but not as effectively as nets.
Also, it’s important to remember that DDT has never been banned in Africa. DDT non-use is much more a result of the ineffectiveness of DDT in many applications — why should we expect Africans to throw away hard-earned money on a pesticide that doesn’t work?
Finally, it’s also good to understand that, largely without DDT, malaria deaths are, today, at the lowest point in human history. Fewer than 900,000 people a year die from malaria today. That’s 25% of the death toll in 1960, when DDT use was at its peak.
Ms. Abel assumes that all Africans are too stupid to use DDT, though it might save their children. He states no reason for this assumption, but we should question it. If Africans do not use DDT, it may well be because the local populations of mosquitoes are not susceptible; or it could be because other solutions, like bednets, are more effective, and cheaper.
Ms. Abel has not made a case that DDT is the best solution to use against malaria. DDT cannot improve a nation’s medical care delivery systems, to quickly diagnose and appropriately treat malaria in humans. DDT cannot make mosquitoes extinct, we know from 66 year of DDT use that mosquitoes always come roaring back. DDT cannot prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria as effectively as bednets.
Maybe, just maybe, as evidenced by the dramatic reductions in malaria deaths, we might assume that modern Africans and health care workers know what they’re doing fighting malaria — and they do not need, want, or call for, a lot more DDT than is currently in use.
It’s too bad Heritage Foundation fell victim to so much junk science, and that the otherwise august press release operation pushes the grand DDT hoaxes. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if these conservative echo chambers would, instead of recycling the old, wrong press releases of other conservatives, would do a little research on their own, and get the facts right?
* It’ll be fun to watch. I sent my response early, early in the morning while rushing to get a presentation ready, and I made a couple of egregious typos, including identifying Jonathan Weiner as “Stephen Weiner.” If HF wished to embarrass me, they’d publish that one out of their moderation queue — but I’ll bet that even with my typos, they can’t allow the facts through. Also, for reasons I can’t figure, some guy named Thurman showed as the author of HF’s piece on May 5. So I had referred to Mr. Thurman instead of Ms. Abel. Interesting technical glitch, or story, there.
Update, May 8: As we should have expected, Steven Milloy’s Junk Science Side Bar also went on record as favoring the poisoning of Africa rather than the fighting of malaria. Milloy makes claims that DDT will beat malaria (ostensibly before it kills all life in Africa), but his sources don’t support the claim. Milloy is always very careful to never mention that, largely without DDT, the death toll from malaria is at the lowest point in human history. Instead he notes that while malaria fighters promoted World Malaria Day, lots of African kids died of malaria. That’s true, but misleading. Because of the malaria-fighting efforts of those Milloy tries to impugn, far fewer African kids die. Contrary to Milloy’s insane and offensive claims, it’s not alright that “only people” die. Milloy asserts implicitly that, but for environmentalists, thousands or millions of children would survive that do not know. That’s not true: Because of the work that Milloy denigrates, millions fewer die. It wasn’t environmentalists who overused DDT and rendered it ineffective in the fight against malaria, it was Milloy’s funders. Follow the money.