After the second world war DDT wiped out malaria in Europe and America while in the rest of the world the number of victims was reduced from two million to 50,000 a year. But, shortly afterwards DDT was unfairly attacked and then banned. In the Third world, and especially in Africa, malaria soon re.exploded and is now causing infinite suffering and is the principal obstacle to progress. The only possibility of freeing Africa and many other countries from this terrible curse is to establish the truth about DDT in such a way to allow for its use against malaria.
Malaria, a human drama and the cause of underdevelopment
A site which deals with the theme of development and the environment cannot fail to deal with Africa. In an era in which many countries, have chosen to pursue economic growth, Africa of the sub-Sahara remains unable to grasp any of the many opportunities offered by modern economy. Why? Some people have the answer ready, it is the fault of globalization. It is the fault of the Northern hemisphere and the multinationals who steal from the poorer countries and destroy their natural resources in order to sustain their immoral consumerism. In truth, there is one factor which alone is sufficient to prevent the development of Africa. Many people, not only are unaware of this factor, but by taking up certain positions actually contribute to this problem, the problem of malaria. Malaria is the real curse which affects Africa in a very serious way, due to the presence of particularly aggressive insects and particularly aggressive forms of the illness. Each year in Africa, hundreds of millions of people are infected and about two million die, above all children. There are 60 species of mosquitos which can transmit the plasmodi of malaria. The life cycle of the infective agent develops in both the body of the affected person and also in the insect. While the mosquito sucks blood from an infected person, they keep back the parasite “eggs” which mature inside their body developing the plasmodi. When, in turn this mosquito bites another person they transmit the infective agent. In the space of half an hour or an hour this reaches the liver where it reproduces and spreads into the blood system. The rupture of the red blood cells causes the classical symptoms of the illness, fever, shivering, and progressive anemia. Malaria means that those affected are unable to work, to cultivate the fields, to study or to take care of their family for weeks and months, in addition it can cause permanent brain damage or physical disablity or a condition of chronic weakness. Death can occur as a result of particulary serious forms of anemia or for the blocking of blood vessels in the brain, the lungs or in other organs. Great human suffering, but at the same time, great damage to society and to the economy. The direct damage has been estimated at a reduction of about 2% of the PIL which, in such a backward region means a complete lack of growth. The indirect damage is, however even more serious. Who will go and invest, or set up commercial activities or lauch tourist projects in an area devastated by malaria? It is no coincidence that where there is malaria, there is also poverty (see the geographical map). Certainly, Africa is also the continent where AIDs is most widespread, and the state administration is incompetent and corrupt, but the problem of malaria alone is sufficient to halt any ideas of development. Meanwhile, as far as AIDs is concerned the main response is relatively simple, information and prevention, the same cannot be said about malaria. This means that it is malaria which is the most difficult and important problem which Africa must face.
The ban on DDT, the most efficient weapon against malaria
The principal weapon we have against malaria is DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane), an insecticide which was banned as a result of accusations which have since proved unfounded.
DDT was synthesised for the first time in 1870, but only seventy years later the insecticide properties were discovered. After the second world war American soldiers used it to reclaim the infected area from malaria, and the results were spectacular: within a few years malaria was difinitively wiped out. DDT was then used against malaria throughout the world with similar results.
At the beginning of the 60’s, however, the alarm was raised; it was claimed that DDT accumulated in the food chain and that it had caused the disappearace of many bird species and that it was cancerogenous.
Rachel Carson, in her famous book “Silent Spring” published in 1962 raised the alarm. She was worried about the fact that DDT, used in this period in agriculture, tended to accumulate in tissue, where it could remain for long periods. Given that we are talking about a pesticide, the fear was that it could cause health problems in the long term. Moreover, for the same reason, it was claimed that DDT could accumulate in the food chain thus harming birds who fed off insects, from this reasoning, the consequent prediction that many bird species were at risk from extinction. DDT became the symbol for all the poisonous substances which man pour into the environment. Since then all environmentalists have condemned it.
When the American Agency for the Protection of the Environment (EPA) banned it in 1972 these fears had already largely been proved unfounded. A study had just demonstrated that DDT was not cancerogenous, while at the same it was becoming evident that this insecticide was one of the most harmless substances around for man’s health and also for most animals.
The American National Science Academy, claimed, in vain that DDT had saved 50 million lives. William Rukelshaus, director of the EPA, replied that “the pesticide…. was a warning that man could expose himself to substance which could have serious consequences on his health.”
Thus, in the name of safeguarding man’s health, millions of people were condenmed to die of malaria. In fact, after the ban proclaimed by EPA (a body which never wanted to swim against the tide) a similar ban followed in developing countries, because of pressure by western donating countries.
The consequence was that malaria gradually returned to its original dimensions.
If, however, some justification existed for the ban on DDT in agriculture, the decision to extend the ban to its use in eliminating malaria was a serious mistake, a mistake which should have been immediately rectified.
Before the ban, malaria, with some 50,000 deaths a year, had become a secondary illness. After the ban, however, it returned to its original dimensions. Since then it has caused around 50 million victims, surely the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century.
A ban, which can be considered even more of a mistake today, given that it is clear that DDT does not cause health damage in the long term. This ban, which continues today, only for ideological reasons, means that the most efficient instrument in defeating malaria cannot be used.
The strategy against malaria
The strategy against malaria foresees two phases. The first aims at destroying the largest possible number of mosquitos, in order to prevent reproduction and to keep them away from dwellings. This is done to reduce the number of infected people.
The second consists of treating the victims, firstly because it is right that this should be done and secondly because this eliminates the plasmodi from their organism, reducing the possibility of further transmission. In this strategy DDT plays a fundamental role. It is repellent and lethal for the mosquito, it is the most effecient insecticide available and at the same time is the most economical and safest to use.
At present the only use permitted of DDT is to impregnate mosquito screens with a solution containing 5% of the substance, but this is a very limited solution. A very efficient solution, on the other hand is represented by the spraying of inside walls
with DDT. This type of disinfesting process keeps the mosquitos away, ands kills those which settle on the walls. It is sufficient ot treat 80% of the dwelling in order to interrupt transmission of the infective agent. Using only this simple and economic solution the number of people infected can be reduced by one fifth, as the experience in South Africa has demonstrated.
The experience in South Africa is particulary significant; the only country south of the Sahara which does not depend on international aid, it re.introduced the use of DDT, and in a few years practically wiped out this terrible illness. In fact, once the number of people suffering from the illness has been reduced it becomes easier to find the means and the organizational resources necessary to treat those people who are infected. This is the second part of the strategy.
The traditional antimalarial treatments such as clorochina and also piretanide, which is used to impregnate the mosquito screeens have lost some of their efficiency. At present the most useful substance is an extract from Artemisia annua, a herb used in China against fevers. However, the availability of this substance is limited and inferior to present needs, the costs are also high. The best solution is, therefore, to cultivate this plant where it is needed, certain charity groups have already begun doing so. In any case, as the South African situation teaches us, this drug is necessary to complete the work of DDT; as the number of patients reduces, treatment becomes easier and time and effort can be spent on interventions in areas where malaria is still present. As the number of patients falls, infection decreases and the chain is gradually broken, at this point DDT will no longer be needed.
Defeating Malaria to help development
With this strategy malaria can be reduced to modest proportions in a few years, and then definitively wiped out. Certainly international aid will be required and it is necessary to act on a wide scale taking in the whole of the African continent Before doing so, however, it is necessary to destroy the false myth, which many still believe that DDT is one of the most dangerous substances created by man. This is a myth
which is cultivated by those environmentalists who wish to create alarm within
public opinion. Sometimes these mistaken ideas can have very serious consequences. Europe and America are not worried about this, they have already forgotten this terrible illness. However, should this illness ever return, (a real possiblility given its dimensions) those countries would not hesitate to use all measures necessary, including DDT. Forcing poor countries to live with malaria and underdevelopment is therefore clearly racist. It is also an extremely immoral attitude.
If we judge actions from a point of view of their consequences, then we should judge the DDT ban as a terrible crime, having been responsible for 50 million dead and the chronic underdevelopment of Africa
Why do we accept the drama of malaria, with its tragic consequences, in order to avoid a lesser evil (DDT is a far less dangerous insecticide, it is used in small quantities and for limited periods of time). And why has public opinion in the western countries never been correctly informed of the situation?
The answer is that DDT has aquired the fame of being the most dangerous poison created by man, and if this fame is unjustified, the principal environmental associations have decided to exploit it in order to keep public opinion alarmed about
environmental problems and there is nothing that can be done, neither rational discussion or human compassion.
This is really unacceptable!
A further contradiction is that in this way environmentalists find themselves in the same camp as the chemical industry, they too being interested in cricising DDT. In fact DDT is not longer protected by a patent, and it is more profitable to produce and sell other more costly pesticides, even though they are more dangerous and less efficient in fighting malaria. Defeating malaria is, therefore possible, if we wish to free Africa from this curse and allow her to pursue economic development, the first condition is to establish the whole truth about DDT.
What the World Needs Now Is DDT
by Tina Rosenberg
(from the site of ECO-IMPERIALISM)