Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 5/10/2007 [Archive]

Detoxifying DDT - Opinion Column

Detoxifying DDT's Reputation

By Bill Steigerwald

You missed the Africa Malaria Day celebration on April 25, didn't you?

Perfectly understandable. Unless you're headed for a three-week safari in Kenya, malaria doesn't appear on our modern radar screens.

But for the poorest, hottest corners of the planet, malaria remains a scourge for which there is no vaccine. The incapacitating disease, caused by a parasite transmitted from humans to humans by mosquitoes, afflicts from 350 million to 500 million people a year in Asia, Africa and South America. More than 80 percent are in rural Africa.

Every year malaria kills at least 1 million humans -- nearly 3,000 a day, mostly the very young or pregnant. The real figure could be 2.5 million annual deaths. No one knows for sure.

Despite these daunting statistics, the global war against malaria may finally be taking a turn for the better. The same miracle weapon that we and most of Europe employed to rid ourselves of malaria half a century ago -- the pesticide DDT -- is starting to be used more widely in Africa.

DDT isn't foolproof but works wonders. Lightly sprayed twice a year on the inside walls of living quarters, it's like Kryptonite to the mosquitoes that carry malaria. In 1945 when India began using DDT, it had 800,000 malaria deaths a year; by 1960, it had a few thousand.

Other malarial hells were not so lucky. In the early 1970s environmentalists spooked by Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" successfully lobbied the federal government to outlaw DDT in the United States because it allegedly was killing off American eagles and was a cancer threat to humans.

It's turned out that DDT is virtually harmless to man, bird or beast. But that didn't help Africa's malaria sufferers, who for 30 years were deprived of DDT because Western relief aid was often contingent on recipient countries not using DDT. Most poor countries that needed it most stopped using it or never got it. Tens of millions died.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. People in the West -- including The New York Times -- came to their senses about bringing back DDT. Some even realized how hypocritical and immoral it was for rich First Worlders to deny poor Third Worlders access to the same pesticide that had made the West malaria-free.

A mini-miracle occurred last year when the World Health Organization reversed its 30-year anti-DDT policy and re-integrated DDT into its heretofore hapless and largely ineffective anti-malaria program.

Environmentalists are still outraged. But DDT remains the cheapest and most effective pesticide for house spraying, which is why countries like South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda are already applying DDT to fight malaria or trying to get the money to do so.

Malaria now is a fashionable but worthy blip on Western radar screens. But DDT obviously still has a radioactive politically incorrect stigma attached to it.

For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, bless its namesakes, has spent at least $1 billion fighting malaria in Africa. Much of that money goes to organizations that then disburse the money to existing national anti-malaria programs that employ DDT spraying, but the foundation itself is conspicuously shy about publicly supporting DDT use.

Last December, as part of a global strategy to fight malaria, the foundation committed $83.5 million for things like bed netting, vaccine research and malaria awareness. Not a dime was specifically set aside for DDT or its application. In fact, the letters D-D-T -- which barely exist on the Web site -- didn't appear on the foundation's press release.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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