- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Africa abounds with wildlife that can be hazardous to human health — lions, elephants, snakes, rhinoceroses, and more. But the biggest danger to Africans is one of the tiniest creatures: the mosquito.

This insect transmits malaria, a brutal and debilitating disease that kills 2.7 million people every year. As one expert puts it, that's like crashing seven jumbo passenger planes every day.

The good news is that in the fight against malaria we have a weapon that is cheap, easy to use, and highly effective. The bad news is that it's DDT — which is banned in much of the world and, if environmentalists get their way, will be outlawed everywhere before long.

Widely used as an agricultural pesticide after World War II, DDT eventually came to be seen as an insidious agent of ecological destruction. The United States outlawed it in 1972 because of evidence it was helping wipe out the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle and other birds. It was one of the toxic substances cited by Rachel Carson in her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” which trumpeted the dangers of various pesticides and helped generate the new movement known as environmentalism.

Wealthy, healthy nations like the United States suffered no real penalty from giving up DDT. But in recent years, it's become clear that many of the world's poorest countries are paying a heavy price for following that course — not only in lives but in economic prosperity. For those people in tropical countries at risk for malaria, 300 million of whom get the disease every year, DDT offers by far the best hope of deliverance.

Using this pesticide may sound like a terrible idea to anyone who remembers it as the surest way to put a species on the endangered list. But in the bad old days, DDT was sprayed in huge volumes on entire fields of crops to kill insects. Nobody proposes to do that today. What public health experts endorse is spraying small amounts on the indoor walls of homes in malarial zones. You can treat the homes in an entire tropical country with the amount of DDT that once would have been used on a single farm.

Does it work? Does it ever. Donald Roberts, a tropical disease specialist at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., says that in studies, when you spray two houses, one with DDT and one with a far more toxic pesticide, mosquitoes will readily enter the latter, while staying away from the one with DDT. Since mosquitoes are most active at night, when people are indoors, DDT sharply reduces the transmission of malaria.

During the 1990s, countries like Brazil and Peru stopped using the stuff and saw their malaria rates soar. But Ecuador, which expanded its DDT spraying during that period, cut its infection rate by 60 percent. South Africa saw the disease run rampant after it abandoned DDT, and reversed the trend only when it resumed use.

Environmental groups that want a worldwide ban, notably the World Wildlife Fund, say countries with a problem should use other pesticides. But that's like saying firemen should fight blazes with anything but water. Roberts and other public health experts say nothing is as effective as DDT. And the alternatives are not only inferior but much more expensive — a critical consideration for countries that barely have two nickels to rub together.

The risks of selective, small-scale use of DDT are nothing compared to the risks of not using it. Though the chemical's residues do show up in the human body, it's not clear they do any harm. And though it may disrupt reproduction in some animals, the amounts that would be used in indoor spraying would have only a minimal effect.

In any case, human life and health sometimes have to take priority over wildlife. If grizzly bears or wolves were eating hundreds or thousands of Americans every year, no one would say those species must be protected at all costs. But malaria kills millions. We can be sanguine about that toll only because Westerners are not the ones paying it.

In a draft United Nations treaty recently approved by representatives of 120 countries, a proposal to set a 2007 deadline for a global ban was dropped. But countries that insist on spraying DDT will be subject to monitoring and reporting requirements that add headaches, cost money, and generally discourage use. Many Western governments also pressure aid recipients to use other means of combating malaria.

Those approaches get the priorities backward. For the time being, there is a powerful argument for using DDT. If you listen, you can hear it being made, 2.7 million times every year.

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