- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

The U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) reversed 30 years of policy yesterday, giving DDT a “clean bill of health” for controlling malaria, and it asked environmental groups to support limited use of the insecticide to save the lives of African babies.

“DDT presents no health risk when used properly indoors,” said Dr. Arata Kochi, director of the WHO’s malaria program. “Well-managed indoor spraying programs using DDT pose no harm to wildlife or humans.”

Malaria rivals AIDS as the leading killer in sub-Saharan Africa. The mosquito-borne parasite kills an estimated 1 million people each year, mostly women and children under age 5.

“Help save African babies as you are helping save the environment,” Dr. Kochi urged environmental groups at the National Press Club yesterday. “African babies … need your help.”

Swiss inventor Paul Hermann Muller won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1948 for discovering DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane. The insecticide helped wipe out malaria in the developing world.

With the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 anti-pesticide tome, “Silent Spring,” DDT became the world’s most vilified pesticide. It was banned from use in the United States in 1972 and abandoned in much of the world.

Dr. Kochi said WHO stopped promoting DDT in the early 1980s. As its use declined, mosquito populations soared, and malaria deaths in Africa and Asia skyrocketed.

An estimated 500 million become sick from malaria each year, making the disease one of the biggest obstacles to economic development in poor nations.

Yesterday, the WHO revised its recommendations and saidDDT is safe for humans and “remarkably effective” when a small amount of DDT is sprayed in the indoor walls of houses and huts.

The spraying, which lasts about six months, keeps mosquitos from entering a building and kills them if they do..

The WHO said DDT is a powerful weapon and should be used in combination with bed nets, better malaria medicines and other pesticides.

Environmental and anti-pesticide groups said safer and more effective alternatives to DDT were available such as pyrethrum and recent studies suggest DDT is harmful to humans, especially children.

“It is about time the international community focused on combating malaria, but this approach takes us exactly in the wrong direction,” Dr. Paul Saoke, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Kenya, said in a statement released by the Pesticide Action Network, which opposes the reinstatement of DDT.

But those who campaigned for years to reinstate the use of DDT in the battle against malaria called yesterday’s announcement a tremendous victory.

“We are finally in a position to provide the maximum amount of protection to poor people in poor countries,” said Dr. Donald Roberts, professor of tropical medicine at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda.

He said pyrethrum insecticides are more expensive and are far less effective over time. He called recent studies that imply DDT may impair development in breast feeding babies “bogus.”

“It is a choice between a proven benefit, saving millions of lives, and a hypothetical, speculative and minor risk,” he said.

Richard Tren, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, agreed.

“DDT is the most studied of man-made chemicals, and there is no evidence that it is unsafe for humans. Remember we are not spraying for fun. Malaria is a deadly disease,” he said.

But the WHO specialist responsible for indoor spraying, or “vector control,” said more study is required.

“We do not feel the product is toxic, but we want to take all necessary precautions,” said Dr. Pierre Guillet.

According to U.S. Agency for International Development figures, the United States has spent about $25 million on indoor spraying in the 2005 and 2006, but very little of that money has gone to purchase DDT, which is currently made only in India and China.

Dr. Kochi said the new WHO recommendation met with some resistance within WHO, and since he took over the program, he has replaced about 50 percent of his professional staff.

“The malaria program was a failure and the WHO decided to go in a strong new direction,” said Dr. Kochi. “We had to ask, does our staff have enough expertise and will they contribute in a meaningful way or not.”

He said there is also resistance in some European countries to importing food and agricultural products from African nations that might begin using DDT.

Ugandan exporters recently came out against using DDT in their nation where malaria is epidemic, fearing the loss of millions in agricultural exports if Europe bans Ugandan products.

Dr. Kochi said those fears are unwarranted, noting that the European Commission supports the WHO recommendations.

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