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Killing our babies

By Fiona Kobusingye-Boynes
web posted October 23, 2006

At long last, the World Health Organization and Uganda's Health Ministry are again emphasizing DDT and other insecticides to control a disease that kills 110,000 Ugandans every year.

But instead of applauding the decision, anti-pesticide activists are attacking it with scare stories and lies. Every day that Paul Saoke, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Pesticide Action Network and their allies keep our health officials from ending malaria, another 300 babies and mothers go to their graves. It's like sending a jetliner filled with children and mothers crashing into the Rwenzori Mountains every day.

Even Environmental Defense, which started the anti-DDT war four decades ago, now says this chemical keeps mosquitoes out of homes and should be used for malaria control. But attacking insecticides is the reason PSR and PAN exist. It's their key to fund raising and job security. So they haven't budged – and poor Africans are paying the price.
Africans need to know the truth, and activists need to stop lying and killing our babies.

DDT does things no other weapon, at any price, can do. Sprayed in tiny amounts once or twice a year on inside walls of homes, it keeps 90% of mosquitoes from even entering, prevents those that do come in from biting, and slashes malaria rates by 75 percent. Since DDT is no longer used in agriculture, mosquitoes are unlikely to become resistant to it, and even those that are immune to its killing properties are kept away by its repellant effects.

This deadly but preventable disease infects over 400 million Africans annually, and kills nearly 2 million. In Kenya alone, malaria costs 170 million lost working days annually.  It enslaves our continent, prevents people from working, keeps tourists and investors from coming to Africa, and reduces the continent's economic productivity by billions of dollars a year.

Any responsible organization would support doing everything possible to reduce malaria. Instead, these activist groups worry about imaginary risks from the best weapon in our arsenal. They tell us we should be more concerned about supposed dangers of DDT that are microscopic compared to dangers inflicted on Africa by mosquitoes.

Their claims about reduced lactation in nursing mothers, low birth weights in babies and impaired immune systems in children are pure speculation. No scientific study ever proved any of them. Malaria, however, absolutely does cause these problems.

Mr. Saoke says a new study shows DDT causes "massive IQ loss in children." That is false. Professor Brenda Eskenazi claims test scores were a few points below normal in young children whose mothers had been exposed to huge amounts of DDT during pregnancy – but the problem may disappear by the time the children enter school. Other researchers have found no such harm from DDT.

Moreover, her findings are based on DDT use in agriculture. They are irrelevant to disease control programs that spray tiny amounts of DDT on walls. And the permanent brain damage caused by malaria is far worse than the problems Eskenazi found.

PSR and PAN claim DDT causes cancer. But millions of soldiers and civilians were sprayed with DDT during and after World War II, to prevent malaria and typhus. Millions of Americans were exposed to large amounts of DDT, when the US used it for malaria control and crop spraying. No study ever found that any of these people got cancer as a result. (Sadly, few Africans even have to worry about getting cancer: they'll die from malaria or dozens of other Third World illnesses long before they get cancer.) 

Claims that DDT causes fertility problems have one goal: generating fear. Hundreds of millions of homes have been sprayed with DDT to control disease. There has been no documented increase of Parkinson's disease, lower sperm counts, drops in fertility, or reduced male sexual performance, says Professor Donald Roberts, one of the world's foremost authorities on DDT and malaria.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group makes the same irrelevant and illusory claims about DDT, and then obsesses about how finger nail polish might cause "nervous system disorders and damage to the liver and kidneys." The fact is, even if these imaginary problems were real, poor Africans would gladly exchange them and a little DDT in breast milk for life without malaria.

Claims of environmental harm stem from widespread DDT use in agriculture, but even most of those claims were later refuted. Bird eggshell thinning, for instance, was due to studies that gave birds calcium-deficient diets. US bald eagle populations were reduced not by DDT, but by illegal hunting.

The European Union will not impose trade sanctions on countries that use DDT for disease control in accord with the Stockholm Convention, EU Commission President Barroso recently said. Moreover, only individual shipments with DDT levels above prescribed tolerance levels would be affected. Carefully conducted indoor spraying programs will ensure that this doesn't happen.

The Stockholm Convention specifically allows DDT for disease control, and will continue to do so until an effective alternative is found. So far, no other chemical comes close to DDT for keeping mosquitoes out of homes and preventing them from biting.

Of course, neither PAN nor PSR has ever contributed even one shilling toward finding a substitute, or building a modern clinic – even though they spend millions a year attacking DDT and other insecticides. And none of these radicals lives (or would ever consider living) in a poor African village, where malaria, infected water and no electricity are a fact of life. What right do they have to tell our people we must remain poor, diseased and forced to bury our babies?

These radicals are simply out of touch with basic humanitarian concerns and the realities of life in poor malaria-endemic countries. They, and the foundations and people who support them financially, ought to be ashamed. They are perpetuating malaria and killing our babies. 

DDT is not a magical solution to our malaria crisis. But it is a vital part of the solution – along with bed nets, sanitation, larvacides, and modern drugs and clinics.

Africans can worry about make-believe risks cited by insecticide-hating activist groups – and continue enduring disease, death and poverty from malaria. Or we can embrace DDT as one more vital weapon, and begin controlling this Killer Disease.

We are wise enough to know what to do. We need to be allowed to make our own decisions, and not be bullied or lied to by irresponsible organizations like Physicians for "Social Responsibility" or Pesticide Action Network. ESR

Fiona Kobusingye-Boynes is coordinator of CORE Uganda and recently presented testimony to her country's parliament, on the need to control malaria.


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