DDT ain’t pixie dust; we can’t poison Africa to health

Internet communications spreads information far and wide, but it also spreads disinformation and error far and wide — sometimes faster than good information.

Bill Gates gave a TED* Talk about the need to fight malaria, and where his billions-of-dollars campaign against the disease is going.  Within minutes, the nattering nabobs science ignorance were calling Gates an idiot, and calling for the poisoning of Africa.

Gates, you may remember, is either the richest man in the world or close to it due to his brilliant marketing of Microsoft products.  This would suggest to rational people that he is not an idiot, at a minimum, and perhaps should be listened to on topics which he has researched, such as malaria and mosquitoes.   Africa, you may remember, has a lot of people in it who don’t want to be poisoned, thank you very much. This may suggest that DDT would be controversial even were it a panacea, which it is not.

Rational voices exist.  Deltoid and Bug Girl both provided useful, and accurate information (though in this case, Tim Lambert at Deltoid refers to the DDT controversy on bed bugs, and to another Bug Girl post on research showing DDT won’t help against bed bugs).

Here’s the controversial two minutes of Gates’s talk (you can see it at Bug Girl, too):

Internet and other media now fall into a predictable rhythm:  Any news faintly related to DDT prompts stiff-necked conservatives and other do-nothings who don’t like environmentalists to write stuff calling for a “return” of DDT, making erroneous claims that DDT had made the world safe against malaria, and that only the delusional claims of Rachel Carson convinced everyone to stupidly stop spraying DDT.  And, of course, they then make the erroneous claim that all we need to do to fix everything is bring back DDT.

They don’t ever let the facts get in the way of a stupid, misplaced political hit.

In short, they treat DDT as pixie dust, a magic solution to every problem.  This is fantasy.  In reality, we cannot poison Africa to good health.

I’ve written about these issues before at length.  Hard research, good research, tells us what we have to do to fight malaria

  • Money must be spent to improve health care in Africa, especially to remote populations. Wiping out malaria requires that we get rid of the parasite in humans.  Mosquitoes get the parasite from infected humans, after all — if mosquitoes can’t get infected from humans, we don’t need to worry so much about killing the mosquitoes.  Preventing infections is good; curing those that exist is essential.  Malaria parasites’ ability to grow resistance to pharmaceuticals means we need health care delivery systems that will assure a complete cycle of medical treatment occurs in every victim, and before that, that a quick and accurate diagnosis will allow targeting of the right drug to the specific parasite.
  • Housing improvements will provide huge benefits. Malaria was wiped out in the U.S. and Europe partly by rising incomes.  Even poor people could afford screens on windows, which keeps mosquitoes out of the house, where most infections start.  Housing unsuitable to screening will put a larger burden on bednets.  But better housing is a key part of the fight.
  • Improving incomes help fight malaria. Families with more money can afford better housing, and better health care.  Malaria, and most disease, is very much an “Are Your Lights On” sort of problem.  Victims are the first to know they need to get medical care, and they are in the best position to prevent infections earlier.  If potential victims have the money to buy the tools to fight malaria, malaria has a tough time.
  • Good public works, from local governments, help fight malaria. Good roads work well to fight the disease.  Bad roads develop potholes.  In Africa, potholes fill with water and become breeding sites for mosquitoes.  Well-engineered, well-maintained roads and walkways make great contributions to eliminating malaria.
  • Education on how to avoid malaria pays huge dividends. People who know how to look for mosquito breeding places, and how to eliminate them, are crucial to the elimination of the disease.  Abandoned tires are classic mosquito breeding dumps, but so are rain gutters and even badly-drained flower pots.  When these things occur close to homes, mosquitoes breed there and bite victims close to home.  Since most people spend a signficant amount of time at or near their homes, eliminating these infection opportunities pays off well.  Further, certain breeds of mosquitoes are active at particular hours of the day or night.  Avoiding the places these breeds exist at the hours of their activity prevents malaria infection.  People must be educated to know these things, and to act on them.
  • Bednets work well, and bednets do not prevent the use of other methods. Pitting a fight against bednets and DDT is a favored tactic of pro-DDT groups.  Research shows bednets are very effective without DDT, but that DDT is not effective over the long term without bednets.  A mild solution of DDT applied to bednets in some areas improves the efficiency of the nets.  This is not an one-or-the-other issue.  Bednets always work, insecticides can be used appropriately.  To beat malaria, we will have to use every tool.  Bednets are a great tool, and they will be required regardless the availability or propriety of DDT.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stepped in to provide money and organization to the fight against malaria a few years ago.  In the last year alone his work and his money have helped prevent millions of cases of malaria, reducing the incidence of the disease by 50 percent in some areas, and 85 percent in others.  Whatever he says about malaria and mosquitoes deserves a good listen at least.

(Until I figure out how to embed TED into the new WordPress, here’s the link at TEDS:  http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/451)


*  TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design

2 Responses to DDT ain’t pixie dust; we can’t poison Africa to health

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Preventing potholes reduces malaria. Does it kill mosquitoes? I’m concerned about reducing malaria. Do you need a map of the cause and effect?

    Potholes on roads often are near dwellings for humans. They become breeding grounds for those species that prey on humans and those species which transmit malaria. When the mosquitoes may breed so close to humans, they transmit malaria.

    Silicon Valley may have plenty of mosquitoes, but none that carry malaria at the moment, and most of them breed away from human habitat; most human habitat in Silicon Valley has screening on the windows and doors to prevent mosquito entry by the species that carry malaria, in the hours they are usually active in preying on humans. The lack of pothole breeding places close to human homes means that contact between human and mosquitoes is greatly reduced, reducing the transmission of all mosquito-borne illnesses.

    Of course, I’m looking at the problem from the perspective of someone who wishes to reduce malaria and reduce the mortality and morbidity of the humans. You’re looking at the problem from the perspective of someone who wishes to poison Africa. The goals are just not the same.

    Am I correct in assuming that you’re confused as hell about how the absence of a pump handle can end a cholera epidemic?


  2. boggy4062 says:

    Building roads kills mosquitoes? This is a good one. BTW, if this was true, we got PLENTY of great roads in Silicon Valley, and we still have lots of mosquitoes. So.. It seems that your “theory” does not add up to much, and it’s the same type of Bull… as your proof for support of Darwinism and absence of God, right?


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