The founder of MicroSoft loosed a jar full of mosquitos in a talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference (TED) today while talking about the death toll due to malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Of course he thinks it’s a good idea to spend $10 per mosquito net in order to give people an imperfect barrier against mosquitos, instead of spending a few cents per house to spray the inside of a one-room mud-brick house with DDT and keep mosquitos (and other nasty creepy crawlies) dead instead of biting people. It’s harmless to people. Limited spraying like this does not get into the water supply in any significant way. The problem with DDT came when it was massively sprayed and slopped all over the place, not when it was used in quantities sufficient to rid homes and backyards near malarial swamps of their mosquitos.

Malaria kills a million people every year, and numbers are rising. Keep this in mind as you think about the falsified scientific experiments on egg thickness.

Even this pro-bug and thus anti-DDT entomologist admits that DDT was a useful part of a malaria-prevention effort in Eritrea in 2006, and that DDT can be an effective part of a complete anti-malaria health strategy. I note that one of her objections to DDT use is the following.

countries choosing to use DDT may face sanctions on agricultural products from the EU. We don’t want to hurt the growing economies of Africa by clinging to an old solution.

Rather than a proof of the unsuitability of DDT, this merely underlines the problem with demonizing solutions, even partial solutions, to a serious problem. The EU needs to repeal the regulations that prevent Africa from exporting food to Europe. That is surely the real reasoning behind the anti-DDT food importation rules, to protect jobs of French farmers at the expense of African farmers, who need insecticides such as DDT in their homes if not in their fields.

Let me quote the WHO’s announcement that it was restoring DDT to its anti-malaria tool set.

I asked my staff; I asked malaria experts around the world: “Are we using every possible weapon to fight this disease?” It became apparent that we were not. One powerful weapon against malaria was not being deployed. In a battle to save the lives of nearly one million children ever year – most of them in Africa – the world was reluctant to spray the inside of houses and huts with insecticides; especially with a highly effective insecticide known as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or “DDT.”

Even though indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides had been remarkably effective preventing malaria sickness and death where used, this strategy seemed to have been abandoned by most countries nearly 30 years ago. By the early 1980s, WHO was no longer actively promoting it.

Some people told me that there was a good reason why its wide scale use had been phased out. I was told the practice was unsafe for humans, birds, fish and wildlife; that the use of DDT in the United States in the 1950s had led to the near extinction of the bald eagle. I was told that indoor spraying with DDT was “politically unpopular.”

But I believe that public health policies must be based on the science and the data, not on conventional wisdom or politics. As we examined the issue, we found that the scientific and programmatic evidence told a different story: We found that:

  • One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying, as it has proven to be just as cost effective as other malaria prevention measures.
  • Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT.
  • DDT presents no health risk when used properly indoors. Well-managed indoor spraying programmes using DDT pose no harm to wildlife or to humans.

That is why today, after this reevaluation, the World Health Organization is announcing that indoor residual spraying with DDT and other insecticides will again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease.

I suspect much of the debate boils down to the insoluble difference between those who value human life above insects and those who do not. I realize that insects outmass humanity, outmass mammalia, and outmass vertebrates on Earth. That does not mean we need to lie down and become bug food. DDT can help people lie down and not become bug food. It’s hard to see how anyone who believes in the principle of protecting human life would be against it, once the experimental facts about its efficacy and safety are known. Given this, it is important that DDT is made legal in the US again, because of the tremendous signal this would send to the rest of the world. Though the US doesn’t suffer from malaria today, the malarial swamps in the southern US are called malarial swamps for a reason. And by reintroducing DDT to the US, in uses where it is valuable, we can save lives tomorrow in Africa and Asia.

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