The Real Poison is Dishonesty

Jay Ambrose

WASHINGTON, DC, July 2003  President Bush, who seems honestly to care about the misery of the African people, could do them no better service on his trip to their continent than to speak out loud and clear about how fanatical, well-off, Western environmentalists are annually killing hundreds of thousands of Africans with their misplaced values.

It sounds astonishing, but it is true that conjectures about the long-term dubious harm of the indoor spraying of DDT have prevented its use in the fight against malaria, even though it is known to be highly effective, even though nothing else is effective, even though the risks are negligible and even though a million people die from the disease every year and hundreds of millions more suffer from it.

Read published reports on the subject, and you find out that most of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Children are the chief victims. The Economist quotes a researcher who says it is as if seven Boeing 747s loaded with children crashed into a mountain daily, killing all on board.

The Economist says, too, that on top of the deaths there is the extraordinary, impoverishing cost of trying to cope with this mosquito-borne killer. Malaria, which can cause excruciating pain, is more than painful, more than death-dealing. It is a destroyer of hope and possibility.

There is an answer, and that answer is DDT. One article observes it has been used all over the world to diminish diseases ranging from yellow fever to typhus, and that a mosquito need only touch it to perish. It is because of DDT that malaria no longer exists in the United States or in Europe, it is noted. Its anti-malarial effectiveness? Something like 90 percent, says The Christian Science Monitor, which tells an interesting story about South Africa. When that nation used DDT widely, malaria cases dropped to 6,000. Five years after it switched to other techniques, the number had climbed to 60,000.

Nothing else does anywhere near the same job as DDT, not bed nets and not drugs that are less and less able to resist the malarial parasite.

So why is it that DDT is so sparsely used around the globe? The story begins with Rachel Carson, who wrote the 1962 book "Silent Spring," maintaining that the agricultural pesticide was destroying wildlife. Some morning in the spring, she wrote, many might wake up as she once did and hear no songbirds. A decade later, the United States and other developed countries had decided to prohibit DDT's use.

Any environmental danger, though, consists in drenching crops with the chemical, not in light spraying inside homes, as is done in anti-malaria programs. While some suspect a threat to human beings, nothing has been proven. One writer notes that the exposure in America was once huge, but no human harm has been shown. Reputable scientists are quoted as saying the suspicions are nonsense.

Some extremists in the environmental movement are nevertheless opposed to any use at all, and industrialized nations have been responsive to their pressure. While an international treaty would permit the employment of DDT in anti-malaria programs, not much is produced anymore, and politicians of the developed nations are hesitant to give aid for its use or even to affirm that they think it should be used. Most of the African nations have no means of getting their hands on it without the help of richer lands.

President Bush, whose $15 billion commitment to battle AIDS in Africa includes money to fight malaria, could turn things around. He could give a speech at an African hospital simply and clearly stating the facts and vowing to do all in his power to provide the continent with DDT for carefully planned, expertly administered anti-malarial programs. He could challenge other developed nations to do the same.

Given the tactics the extremists sometimes use, and their general disdain for the president to begin with, Bush would face some political hazard, yet even if he absorbs some punishment, it would be worth it. Just imagine what the achievement could be the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives every year, year after year, perhaps the eventual elimination of malaria in Africa, and a major move toward restoring hope and possibility on the continent.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

Copyright Jay Ambrose
Scripps Howard News Service

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21 nov  2003