Monday, January 17, 2005

The butcher’s bill from the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia and East Africa last month is broaching the 200,000 mark. That number, as tragic as it is, could be increased by some magnitudes if something isn’t done immediately to halt the onset of malaria, which has already been detected in Indonesia. Yet, inexplicably, the most effective way to combat malaria — spraying the insecticide DDT — is not being used by the world’s leading aid organizations. Instead, we’re giving those most at risk bed nets. Why? Because of baseless Western fears that DDT is more dangerous to humans than malaria, which causes 2 to 3 million deaths every year.

Ever since Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” effectively labeled DDT as a bald eagle killer and carcinogen to humans, the United States and the other nations have stopped using it, and also stopped supplying it to those countries where malaria kills hundreds of thousands annually. “It’s a colossal tragedy,” Donald Roberts, a professor of tropical public health at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “And it’s embroiled in environmental politics and incompetent bureaucracies.”

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when DDT was in widespread use, malaria rates throughout the world were in decline, almost to the point where many expected it to disappear. Now it’s back as one of the Third World’s most deadly diseases due entirely to the ban the United States and other nations put in place, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Never mind that nearly all of Mrs. Carson’s claims have been refuted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ben Johnson, managing editor of, notes the findings of Todd Seavey of the American Council on Health and Science in a recent article: “No DDT-related human fatalities or chronic illnesses have ever been recorded, even among the DDT-soaked workers in anti-malarial programs or among prisoners who were fed DDT as volunteer test subjects — let alone among the 600 million to 1 billion who lived in repeatedly-sprayed dwellings at the height of the substance’s use.”

And now areas like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, with thousands of people living in make-shift camps, are entering their malaria seasons. The devastation and pools of water left by the tsunami are only worsening the problem, according to Richard Allan, director of the Mentor Initiative, a public-health group that fights malaria epidemics. “The combination of the tsunami and the rains are creating the largest single set of [mosquito] breeding sites that Indonesia has ever seen in its history,” he told the AP.

There is still time to ward off the impending catastrophe, which could be far worse than the one that triggered it, but only if the United States sets aside its backward DDT policy — and not only for Southeast Asia and East Africa.

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