March 06, 2005

Let DDT Save Lives

Normally I regard the environmental movement as a sort of secular religion, paying lip service to the token deities of Wilderness, Nature and Simpler Times. I see them as obstructing the natural progress of humanity, ignoring science whenever it gets in their way, trying to make products more expensive for bizarre socio-religious purposes and generally being a hassle that worsens our lives without (usually) directly threatening our lives.

But I don't live in Africa. In the poorest continent as many as 400 million people a year get malaria (according to the site above; the number surprises me, too). With 2 million dying from it annually, it's a huge drain on the resources of the entire continent. Instead of building roads, working farms or constructing homes people are either busy being sick, treating the sick or paying to treat the sick. Aid grants and charity money, instead of going more toward building the economy and infrastructure of Africa, go instead to keeping a bare subsistence. Considering the horrendous rate of AIDS and HIV infections, disease is perhaps reason #1 why Africa as a whole is unable to reach a lasting economic or political stability.

The reason why malaria is so widespread is simple: bugs spread it. Unlike in Europe, North America and elsewhere, the airborne poison DDT is not employed in Africa to kill the insects that spread malaria and other diseases. It was used widely in the US, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s it was believed by many to be poisonous and was banned from most of the developed world by the 1970s and 1980s. By this time, most of the insects that spread these diseases were controlled or even locally wiped out. The spread of insect-borne diseases was thereby controlled to a large extent. DDT was banned for health reasons, on the assumption that it could cause cancer or other diseases. The research since then has suggested that the link between DDT and diseases is overblown, if not largely fictional.

But when two million people are dying from malaria and countless more are being infected with this disease, are we prepared to rule out DDT because it MIGHT also cause disease? Considering the relative health of the Western populations where DDT was used compared to the widespread infections in Africa where DDT is not used, I think we have a good idea of which path is better.

Right now some organizations and groups, including various EU politicians, are pressuring Uganda (and Africa in general) to avoid DDT use with religious-like fervor. This pattern ought to be reversed; employing DDT should be one important step to save lives in Africa and eventually to stabilize the continent for economic and political growth. People don't care about democracy or human rights when they're getting sick year after year. DDT can stem the tide of horrible infectious diseases in Africa and it's nothing short of willful ignorance or selfish quasi-religious environmentalism to deny this critical tool to African governments. If anything we ought to start charities to defray the costs of buying and applying DDT.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then we could at least put one-sixteenth of our disease-related aid to Africa into disease prevention methods like DDT.

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