10 November 2005

South Africa: Who Must Take Side of Malaria Victims

guest column

Johannesburg — AFTER years of wilful blindness and millions of avoidable deaths from malaria, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has finally accepted the quick, simple, cheap and safe solution: DDT. But Africans still face a battle with environmentalists and trade blocs who oppose this demonised pesticide.

The WHO's Roll Back Malaria (RMB) campaign meets in Yaoundé this week faced with an increase in the disease it was supposed to halve by 2010: more than a million people continue to die each year because aid agencies and western environmentalists have ganged up against DDT, the product that eradicated malaria in many parts of the world.

RBM started in 1998: millions of dollars later, a WHO report admits "malaria has got somewhat worse during this period".

The real tragedy is that malaria would have got somewhat better if the WHO had adopted a sensible strategy from the start. Central to any malaria control plan should be spraying the inside walls of residential buildings with DDT and other insecticides. This prevents most mosquitoes from entering dwellings and it repels or kills those insects that do make it inside.

Over the last few decades, however, the WHO and aid non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have deliberately discouraged the use of DDT, egged on by western environmentalists who claim it is dangerous. This is a betrayal of those Africans who are dying from malaria.

Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and SA have experienced success by using DDT. By contrast, those countries that have phased out the use of insecticides have witnessed a resurgence of malaria.

DDT is what eradicated malaria in the southern US and Mediterranean Europe in the mid-20th century. There has never been any evidence of harm to humans or animals and one of its proponents, J Gordon Edwards, used to eat spoonfuls of it at lectures: he died this year, out hiking, at 84.

This week the WHO said it would make DDT part of its RBM campaign. But Africa faces numerous hidden barriers, such as NGOs and western governments refusing to fund supplies of DDT or threatening to ban exports from areas where it is used.

The European Union threatened Uganda this year with bans on agricultural exports if it started using DDT against malaria, even though such very limited use was allowed by a little-publicised WHO rule and by the 2004 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

US Senator Sam Brownback has been trying to force USAID to use DDT in its aid programmes but faces strong political and pressure-group opposition. Although even Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have admitted on occasion that DDT could have a role in fighting malaria, practical opposition remains because they claim DDT harms the environment, despite proof to the contrary after 60 years of use.

These types of barriers will be used against African produce in Europe and the US by governments and environmentalists unless the WHO publicly and noisily takes the side of malaria victims. Africans must demand that RMB's plans include practical measures to save lives now with DDT, plus a campaign to counter the opposition of western governments, NGOs, and environmentalist pressure groups. Millions of African lives depend on it.

Stevens is director, Campaign for Fighting Diseases, London, a charity devoted to increasing the health of poor people through free-market solutions.

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