[Paleopsych] Kristof: It's Time to Spray DDT

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Mon Jan 10 22:47:20 UTC 2005

It's Time to Spray DDT
New York Times opinion column by Nicholas D. Kristof, 5.1.8

[This is quite a change from a leftist.]

If the U.S. wants to help people in tsunami-hit countries
like Sri Lanka and Indonesia - not to mention other poor
countries in Africa - there's one step that would cost us
nothing and would save hundreds of thousands of lives.

It would be to allow DDT in malaria-ravaged countries.

I'm thrilled that we're pouring hundreds of millions of
dollars into the relief effort, but the tsunami was only a
blip in third-world mortality. Mosquitoes kill 20 times
more people each year than the tsunami did, and in the long
war between humans and mosquitoes it looks as if mosquitoes
are winning.

One reason is that the U.S. and other rich countries are
siding with the mosquitoes against the world's poor - by
opposing the use of DDT.

"It's a colossal tragedy," says Donald Roberts, a professor
of tropical public health at Uniformed Services University
of the Health Sciences. "And it's embroiled in
environmental politics and incompetent bureaucracies."

In the 1950's, 60's and early 70's, DDT was used to reduce
malaria around the world, even eliminating it in places
like Taiwan. But then the growing recognition of the harm
DDT can cause in the environment - threatening the
extinction of the bald eagle, for example - led DDT to be
banned in the West and stigmatized worldwide. Ever since,
malaria has been on the rise.

The poor countries that were able to keep malaria in check
tend to be the same few that continued to use DDT, like
Ecuador. Similarly, in Mexico, malaria rose and fell with
the use of DDT. South Africa brought back DDT in 2000,
after a switch to other pesticides had led to a surge in
malaria, and now the disease is under control again. The
evidence is overwhelming: DDT saves lives.

But most Western aid agencies will not pay for
anti-malarial programs that use DDT, and that pretty much
ensures that DDT won't be used. Instead, the U.N. and
Western donors encourage use of insecticide-treated bed
nets and medicine to cure malaria.

Bed nets and medicines are critical tools in fighting
malaria, but they're not enough. The existing anti-malaria
strategy is an underfinanced failure, with malaria probably
killing 2 million or 3 million people each year.

DDT doesn't work everywhere. It wasn't nearly as effective
in West African savannah as it was in southern Africa, and
it's hard to apply in remote villages. And some countries,
like Vietnam, have managed to curb malaria without DDT.

But overall, one of the best ways to protect people is to
spray the inside of a hut, about once a year, with DDT.
This uses tiny amounts of DDT - 450,000 people can be
protected with the same amount that was applied in the
1960's to a single 1,000-acre American cotton farm.

Is it safe? DDT was sprayed in America in the 1950's as
children played in the spray, and up to 80,000 tons a year
were sprayed on American crops. There is some research
suggesting that it could lead to premature births, but
humans are far better off exposed to DDT than exposed to

I called the World Wildlife Fund, thinking I would get a
fight. But Richard Liroff, its expert on toxins, said he
could accept the use of DDT when necessary in anti-malaria

"South Africa was right to use DDT," he said. "If the
alternatives to DDT aren't working, as they weren't in
South Africa, geez, you've got to use it. In South Africa
it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved
lots of lives."

At Greenpeace, Rick Hind noted reasons to be wary of DDT,
but added: "If there's nothing else and it's going to save
lives, we're all for it. Nobody's dogmatic about it."

So why do the U.N. and donor agencies, including the U.S.
Agency for International Development, generally avoid
financing DDT programs? The main obstacle seems to be
bureaucratic caution and inertia. President Bush should cut
through that and lead an effort to fight malaria using all
necessary tools - including DDT.

One of my most exhilarating moments with my children came
when we were backpacking together and spotted a bald eagle.
It was a tragedy that we nearly allowed DDT to wipe out
such magnificent birds, and we should continue to ban DDT
in the U.S.

But it's also tragic that our squeamishness about DDT is
killing more people in poor countries, year in and year
out, than even a once-in-a-century tsunami.


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