Not reading for comprehension: Glenn Reynolds, National Geographic and DDT


It’s best to avoid the tabloids most of the time, but particularly its good not to rely on tabloids for good information for making policy.

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, often an internet tabloid, demonstrates these dangers, especially with regard to the hoax campaign against Rachel Carson and the World Health Organization.

In a post today, Instapundit said:

A REPORT ON MALARIA, from National Geographic.

And note this bit:

Soon after the program collapsed, mosquito control lost access to its crucial tool, DDT. The problem was overuse—not by malaria fighters but by farmers, especially cotton growers, trying to protect their crops. The spray was so cheap that many times the necessary doses were sometimes applied. The insecticide accumulated in the soil and tainted watercourses. Though nontoxic to humans, DDT harmed peregrine falcons, sea lions, and salmon. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, documenting this abuse and painting so damning a picture that the chemical was eventually outlawed by most of the world for agricultural use. Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

Read the whole thing. [Emphasis from Instapundit.]

“Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer,” cover of National Geographic Magazine, July 2007. Test to see if your reading comprehension is better than Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds!

Please do read the whole thing — what is emphasized is not what the brief snippet at Instapundit says at all. The National Geographic article, “Bedlam in the Blood,” gives details of the fight against malaria, including details about how difficult it is to beat. Among other things, the article talks about the medical difficulties and the political difficulties. The article emphasizes that there is not a panacea solution, including especially DDT.

But, that paragraph Reynolds quotes already carries that message. Did you miss it? Reynolds appears to have missed it big time. Here’s the paragraph again, with my emphasis for what you should understand about the difficulties

Soon after the program collapsed, mosquito control lost access to its crucial tool, DDT. The problem was overuse—not by malaria fighters but by farmers, especially cotton growers, trying to protect their crops. The spray was so cheap that many times the necessary doses were sometimes applied. The insecticide accumulated in the soil and tainted watercourses. Though nontoxic to humans, DDT harmed peregrine falcons, sea lions, and salmon, [especially predators of mosquitoes]. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, documenting this abuse and painting so damning a picture that the chemical was eventually outlawed by most of the world for agricultural use [years later]. Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

In the critical area of Subsaharan Africa, governments were unable to put together programs to spray for mosquitoes and deliver pharmaceuticals to victims. Although DDT was largely ineffective against the mosquitoes that carried some forms of the disease in that area, the human institutions simply did not exist to make an eradication program work.

Instapundit puts the blame on Rachel Carson, as if the later restrictions on DDT were what she urged, and as if Carson could personally have saved the Belgian Congo, Rwanda, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and other nations from revolutions that crippled governmental efficacy throughout Africa.

Read the entire article. Malaria eradication in the U.S. was made easier by the fact that the mosquitoes that carry the disease here tend to eschew humans for meals — they bite cattle instead (who have their own forms of malaria). The U.S. had money to put screens on windows, a medical establishment to treat malaria, and the less aggressive form of the malaria parasites.

Subsaharan Africa had none of those advantages. Reynolds suggests, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute says, all of that was Rachel Carson’s fault.

The power of a bad, wrong idea should not be underestimated. Malaria cannot be conquered today without a combination of better medical care, education, strong governmental agencies to carry out government malaria-fighting programs, and consistent work to prevent evolution of malaria parasites into tougher diseases, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes into pesticide-resistant weapons of disease dissemination.

If Reynolds were to actually read Silent Spring, he’d begin to understand the enormity of the problems, and he could become a tool to stop the spread of malaria, instead of a voice unwittingly calling for surrender.

DDT is not a panacea against malaria now. Insects are resistant, the parasites are resistant to medical treatment (and DDT never played a key role in that process), money is scarce for creating and distributing effective blocks to malaria infections, and political institutions to fight the disease are wobbly. None of that is Rachel Carson’s fault. Much of that information was carried in the warnings from Rachel Carson.

But, if you read the article, you understand that DDT never could have been effective against some of the worst forms of malaria. DDT was never a panacea against malaria.

You won’t learn that from tabloid journalism, which offers solutions to difficult problems which are, as Ronald Reagan described them, simple and easy, but also ineffective and wrong. Instapundit misleads with such reports.

Just from the coverage that National Geographic gives to malaria, for example, you can get a much better, more rounded and more accurate view of the problems.

Fighting malaria requires money and proper medical care (with or without DDT); reporter Michael Finkel explained:

It was a desperately helpless situation, watching as a disease that’s entirely preventable—given the proper funding and medical infrastructure—ravaged the health of so many children.

(Also see this editorial rebuttal from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, written by Dr. Melinda Moree and Chris Earl of the malaria-fighting initiative in PATH:

“Despite the fact there are effective methods to prevent and treat malaria, caseload numbers continue to rise, and the disease is devastating communities, families and economies in Africa and Asia, where it strikes the most.

Through all the efforts to curb the spread of the disease we’ve learned that no single organization or approach can tackle malaria. All the tools in our arsenal are needed to combat this epidemic. Delivery must be improved of existing interventions, such as bed nets to prevent infection from mosquito bites, drugs to prevent and treat malaria and insecticide spraying for homes.

The only way to win the war against malaria is to find new and even more effective ways to prevent infection and treat those who are sick. That includes the development of new drugs and diagnostics as well as a malaria vaccine that has the potential to offer widespread protection against the disease.)

HIV/AIDS compounds the malaria problems; NatGeo photographer John Stanmeyer explained:

In Kenya, many of the malaria patients I encountered were in HIV wards, where about half of them end up dying. Even though they may not be in the advanced stages of AIDS, their immune systems are so shot they simply can’t survive the assault of the malaria parasite.

I’ve spent more than seven years photographing AIDS throughout all of Asia and was deeply saddened to realize that those fellow humans already suffering from one of our planet’s greatest health problems are also deeply affected by malaria. This is one of humanity’s greatest needs: to find a cure for both HIV/AIDS as well as treatable, affordable solutions to malaria.

One of the key problems of treating malaria is simply getting around, for example, getting victims to the hospital; Stanmeyer again:

It was extraordinarily uplifting to see the astonishing recoveries of the patients at Kalene Mission Hospital in northern Zambia. So many of them were children, some less than a year old. In this part of Africa, the challenge is just getting to the hospital. Many patients don’t make it that far. But for those who do, the medicine can produce remarkable results.

Alternatives to DDT exist; see the second presentation, “India’s Urban Problem.” Also, DDT is in use today — see the third presentation, “Fighting On.”

Human activities continue to spread malaria (see “A Perfect Killer”); malaria is up 400% in parts of South America, partly due to an increase in fish farming, which both creates new places for mosquitoes to breed, and exposes fish farm workers to mosquitoes carrying the disease; lack of medical treatment assures the disease will spread, rather than be arrested.

Also, don’t miss this quirky story of how one man won the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, by using malaria as a cure for disease.

7 Responses to Not reading for comprehension: Glenn Reynolds, National Geographic and DDT

  1. […] to weigh scentific evidence against hysterical environmental political hyperbole. (Well, actually there’s some good information in the National Geographic story about malaria, but I doubt the blog writer bothered to read […]

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  2. […] to weigh scentific evidence against hysterical environmental political hyperbole. (Well, actually there’s some good information in the National Geographic story about malaria, but I doubt the blog writer bothered to read […]

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  3. […] in that list.  If there were any accurate information, it would be a miracle.  (Well, actually there’s some good information in the National Geographic story about malaria, but I doubt the blog writer bothered to read it.)  The blog links to all the Lyndon Larouche […]

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  4. Bug Girl says:

    SIGH.
    Thanks for yet more evidence, Ed.

    Like

  5. The DDT meme (it’s all Rachel Carson’s fault) is an old conservative favourite, and typically circulates untroubled by context, or, indeed, facts. So Reynolds isn’t even original here.

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  6. paulbeard says:

    If I was the NatGeo, I would be embarrassed at letting that last sentence run: it could be glossed by speed-readers or light thinkers as blaming the lack of DDT and the people who pointed out it’s abuse for the 20 million estimated deaths. The real cause is, once more, agriculture’s love of chemical remediation for natural factors. Thanks for posting this: it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen.

    Like

  7. actor212 says:

    In fairness to Reynolds, NatGeo is a bit above his reading comprehension range…

    Like

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