Africa Marks Malaria Day; U.S. Rethinking DDT

Published June 1, 2006

Every year, Africa Malaria Day–April 25–is marked by promises to bring malaria under control. But every year the calls for action turn out to be mere bombast, as health care agencies refuse to go beyond bed nets and “capacity building;” radical greens continue to obstruct proven solutions; and disease and death rates climb. This year, however, Africa Malaria Day proved changes may finally be coming.

400 Million Afflicted

More than 400 million African mothers, fathers, and children are afflicted with acute malaria. That’s as many victims as there are people in the United States and Mexico combined.

Fevers, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, and unconsciousness leave them unable to work, cultivate fields, attend school, or care for their families, for weeks on end. Many are permanently brain-damaged. Nearly one million die each and every year. No wonder sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most impoverished regions on Earth.

Use of DDT Essential

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, and hundreds of physicians, clergy, and human rights advocates have joined me in demanding that DDT be put back into the malaria control arsenal. The U.S. Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, now supports indoor DDT spraying as a vital component of any successful malaria control program, and the U.S. Agency for International Development has initiated DDT and other insecticide spraying programs in several countries.

Sprayed in small quantities, just twice a year, on the walls and eaves of mud-and-thatch or cinderblock homes, DDT keeps 90 percent of mosquitoes from entering, and it irritates any that do come in, so they rarely bite. No other insecticide at any price does that. DDT also kills mosquitoes that land on walls.

Used this way, virtually no DDT ever reaches the environment. But the health results are astounding.

Within two years of starting DDT programs, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar, and Swaziland slashed their malaria rates by 75 percent or more. With fewer people getting sick, they could get scarce ACT drugs to nearly all victims, cutting rates even further. By contrast, bed nets might reduce malaria rates by only 20 percent.

EU, Activists Oppose DDT

Other countries want to launch similar programs. However, the European Union (EU) is again warning of possible agricultural export sanctions against Uganda, Kenya, and other countries that use DDT to save lives. Previous threats were pointed and direct; the latest are more oblique.

“Nothing will happen, at least on the official side, if they decide to use DDT in strict compliance with the Stockholm Convention” on chemicals, the EU’s trade representative to Uganda said recently. But the EU has “no control” over environmental and consumer organizations that might pressure supermarkets to stop selling agricultural products from those nations, he claimed.

In other words, if callous activists want to exaggerate the risks from trace amounts of insecticides and ignore the very real, life-or-death dangers those insecticides could prevent, the EU’s hands are tied. It can’t even do anything as simple as issuing an official statement attesting that DDT is safe and effective and represents no threat to EU consumers. If more Africans get sick and die, that’s a shame, but we Europeans have our own concerns–that’s the EU’s position.

The struggle for human rights–especially the fundamental right to life itself–is obviously not over.

Successful in America, Europe

Malaria once killed thousands of Americans annually, from New York to California, from Florida and Louisiana to Michigan and Alaska. It sent Jamestown colonists to early graves and, even in the 1930s, reduced the industrial output of America’s southern states by a third.

It arrived in Europe 2,600 years ago. Hippocrates described it, Cromwell died from it, and Charles II and Louis XIV nearly perished from it. From Italy and Romania to Poland and the English Channel, malarial mosquitoes ruled over Europe for centuries. Malaria was not eradicated in Germany until 1950, in the Netherlands until 1959.

Aggressive interventions, including widespread use of DDT, finally ended malaria’s deadly grip. Once the United States and Europe became malaria-free, however, they began to impose restrictions that have perpetuated malaria elsewhere, especially in Africa.

The United States and Europe banned DDT while grudgingly leaving a rarely honored exception in the Stockholm Convention. With few exceptions, aid agencies refused to supply or support the use of insecticides, especially DDT. They still promote bed nets and education while awaiting a vaccine that’s still a decade away, and awaiting mud-and-thatch huts miraculously becoming modern homes with doors and window screens.

Ban Created New Holocaust

Not surprisingly, there has been another holocaust of Africans every few years, and malaria deaths since the 1972 DDT ban may in fact exceed the entire World War II death toll. The West’s policy on DDT has been a travesty worse than colonialism ever was, a human rights violation of monstrous proportions.

I have seen this devastation with my own eyes. Malaria destroyed the lives of my wife’s African friends and family members. Last Christmas, my nephew returned to a Ugandan school that he sponsors, to find that 50 of its 500 young students had died from malaria in just 12 months. My daughter-in-law lost two sisters, two nephews, and her little son.

Time for Action

It’s time for Europe to end its deadly policies. Individual countries and the EU Parliament must issue an unequivocal declaration:

  • supporting DDT as a vital component of any malaria control program;
  • affirming the right of every country’s health minister to decide which weapons to use in combating disease;
  • agreeing to support insecticide spraying programs;
  • saying trade bans and lethal supermarket campaigns will not be tolerated; and
  • pledging to penalize any country or organization that tries to block lifesaving insecticide programs.

For too long, the European Union, environmental groups, and health care agencies let horribly misguided policies perpetuate malaria’s global reign of terror. They have it within their power to save millions of lives and improve health and economic conditions for billions.

If they can find the necessary moral clarity and political willpower, countless mothers and daughters, fathers and sons will be spared the ravages of this killer disease. And by the next Africa Malaria Day, there will actually be something to celebrate–not just in Africa but also in Asian and Latin American countries that are still plagued by this ancient, deadly disease.

Roy Innis ([email protected]) is national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of America’s oldest and most respected civil rights organizations.

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