Concerned about the rising number of deaths mosquito-borne malaria is inflicting on its citizens, the government of Uganda has approved the use of the pesticide DDT to combat the deadly disease.
The decision, handed down in January, marks the end of a protracted conflict that pitted public health officials, who overwhelmingly favor the use of DDT, against environmental activists and corporate agricultural exporters, who oppose it.
Frustrated by the inability of other measures to stem the dreaded disease, which kills an estimated 100,000 Ugandans each year, officials at the country’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) will permit DDT to be sprayed in residences, where the chemical’s unique properties irritate, repel, and poison mosquitoes while doing no harm to humans or animals.
Uganda’s decision is contingent on approval from international authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and the Rotterdam Convention.
DDT Historically Successful
DDT was last used in Uganda 46 years ago by WHO. It successfully controlled the spread of malaria in Kamungu province in the western region of the country. Uganda was one of many malaria-prone countries where the use of DDT brought the killer disease to the brink of eradication.
With the help of DDT, the global malaria death rate–which had been 1,740 deaths per million in 1930–dropped more than 70 percent, to 480 per million in 1950.
Since Uganda stopped using DDT, however, malaria has ravaged the country. Government officials have decided to rebuff environmental activists and once again use it to combat malaria.
False Concerns Doom Africans
Niger Innis, spokesman for the U.S. branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, said, “Environmentalists always claim to be stakeholders. But every day that they succeed in delaying the use of DDT and other insecticides, another 3,000 to 5,000 people die from malaria. Those victims and the half billion who get this disease every year, who lie in bed shaking with convulsions, who can’t work or go to school, who end up with permanent brain damage from malaria–they are the real stakeholders. It’s their views that count.”
“The World Health Organization reviewed decades of scientific studies and concluded that spraying DDT on the inside walls of houses is perfectly safe for people and the environment,” added Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.
“More importantly,” Driessen continued, “there is simply no substitute for it, at any price. Sprayed just once or twice a year, it keeps 90 percent of mosquitoes from even entering homes, irritates the ones that do enter, so they don’t bite, kills those that land, and reduces malaria rates by 75 percent or more.”
Political Wrangling Continues
Despite the hurdles posed by the need for approval by international organizations, the rehabilitation of DDT as an effective weapon against malaria continues apace. In May 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reversed more than 30 years of policy and announced it had authorized the use of DDT to help combat malaria in Africa. By late 2006, the agency was using the substance as part of its malaria-control efforts in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zambia, with more African countries expected to join the indoor-spraying program in the coming years.
DDT received a further vote of confidence when, a few months after the USAID announcement, President George W. Bush included use of DDT as part of his international anti-malaria campaign.
Fiona Kobusingye-Boynes, coordinator for the Uganda division of the Congress of Racial Equality, said, “Spraying DDT is like putting a bed net over the entire house, to protect the whole family. Opponents talk constantly about minor, speculative, or imaginary dangers of using DDT. But they never say a word about the horrible risks of not using it–the very real risks that DDT would prevent.
“Ugandans are delighted that DDT is about to return, because they know it will save lives,” Kobusingye-Boynes continued.
Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC and author of The Green Wave; Environmentalism and Its Consequences, published by the Capital Research Center.