- - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Being the richest man in the history of the world has its advantages. After building Microsoft from an idea hatched in a garage in Albuquerque into one of the world’s largest companies, Bill Gates is moving on to bigger and better things. Earlier this month, he wrote a check for $500 million to eradicate malaria. This is generosity that few on Planet Earth can match.

His goal is to eradicate the mosquito-borne disease that kills an estimated 627,000 annually, mostly in Africa, by distributing mosquito nets and developing a “next-generation vaccine.” It’s a commendable effort, but this isn’t a problem solved only with money.

Malaria was once a scourge in the United States, primarily in the rural South, where mosquitoes thrive in a marshy, subtropical climate. The 1920 census counted 3,136 malaria deaths, a relatively larger number then than now. But a concerted effort fought back against the disease. More than 4 million homes were sprayed with DDT, an effective and inexpensive pesticide, by 1949. Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then called the Office of Malaria Control, declared the disease eradicated in the United States.

It would have been long gone from the developing world, too, but for the environmental zealotry of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book “Silent Spring” condemned millions to an early death. Many of the victims were children. Miss Carson claimed that DDT causes cancer, poisons the oceans and wipes out so many birds that springtime would eventually fall silent because there would be no feathered friends to chirp and sing.

In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development adopted regulations effectively prohibiting the funding of international projects if DDT were used. This was good news for the mosquitoes, particularly in Africa, but not for the millions who suffered the fever, the chills, the debilitating weakness and often death.

J. Gordon Edwards, an entomologist writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, calls Miss Carson’s work “a case study in scientific fraud.” Indeed, an Audubon Society census shows that bird populations increased in areas where DDT was used, and Miss Carson’s claim that DDT caused bird’s egg shells to develop thin and fragile was shown in the laboratory to have been caused by Carson researchers feeding the birds under study a calcium-deficient diet. “Silent Spring” was rigged.

The damage persists, though the truth has begun to sink in. The United Nations gave DDT “a clean bill of health” and rescinded a ban on its use. Since then, may subtropical countries, particularly in Africa, have resumed applying the pesticide in homes.

In his 2004 report, Mr. Edwards lamented that the lack of a worldwide initiative to kill mosquitoes persists to this day. “Instead,” he wrote, “hundreds of millions of dollars are devoted to the search for vaccines, which might or might not be effective.” Several researchers, including the former head of the $90 million USAID malaria-eradication program, have been convicted of embezzling millions of dollars from malaria-research grants.

Throwing money at a serious health problem isn’t always the best way to fight disease. Eliminating malaria requires killing bugs, not just writing checks.

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