Africa Malaria Day – action or bombast?

Parents and children will continue dying from malaria, until Europe rejects its colonialist past. Every year, over 400 million African mothers, fathers and children are stricken by acute malaria. That’s as many victims as there are people in the United States and Mexico combined.

Fevers, chills, vomiting, diarrhoea, delirium and unconsciousness leave them unable to work, cultivate fields, attend school or care for their families, for weeks on end. Many are permanently brain damaged. Nearly 1 million die. No wonder sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most impoverished regions on Earth.

Every year, Africa Malaria Day (April 25) is marked by promises to bring malaria under control. But every year calls for action turn out to be mere bombast, as healthcare agencies refuse to go beyond bed nets and “capacity building,” radical greens continue to obstruct proven strategies, and disease and death rates climb.

This year, however, things may be different.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, and hundreds of physicians, clergy and human rights advocates have joined me in demanding that DDT be put back into the malaria control arsenal. (See The US Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, now support indoor DDT spraying as a vital component of any successful malaria control programme, and the U.S. Agency for International Development has initiated DDT and other insecticide spraying programmes in several countries.

Sprayed in small quantities, just twice a year, on the walls and eaves of mud-and-thatch or cinder block homes, it keeps 90% of mosquitoes from entering and irritates any that do come in, so they rarely bite. No other insecticide – at any price – does that. Of course, it also kills those that land on walls.

Used this way, virtually no DDT even reaches the environment. But the results are astounding.

Within two years of starting DDT programmes, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and Swaziland slashed their malaria rates by 75 percent or more. With fewer people getting sick, they could get scarce ACT drugs to nearly all victims, and cut rates even further. By contrast, bed nets might reduce malaria rates by a measly 20 percent.

Other countries want to launch similar programmes. However, the EU is again warning of possible agricultural export sanctions against Uganda, Kenya and other countries that use DDT to save lives. Previous threats were pointed and direct; the latest are more oblique.

“Nothing will happen, at least on the official side, if they decide to use DDT in strict compliance with the Stockholm Convention” on chemicals, the EU’s trade representative to Uganda said recently. But the EU has “no control” over environmental and consumer organisations that might pressure supermarkets to stop selling agricultural products from those nations, he claimed.

In other words, if callous activists want to emphasise overblown risks from trace amounts of insecticides – and ignore the very real, life-or-death risks that those insecticides could prevent – the EU’s hands are tied. It can’t even do anything as simple as issuing an official statement, attesting that DDT is safe and effective and represents no threat to EU consumers. If more Africans get sick and die, that’s a shame, but we Europeans have our own concerns.

The struggle for human rights – especially the fundamental right to life itself – is obviously not over.

Malaria once killed thousands of Americans annually, from New York to California, from Florida and Louisiana to Michigan and Alaska. It sent Jamestown colonists to early graves and, even in the 1930s, reduced the industrial output of the USA’s southern states by a third.

It arrived in Europe 2,600 years ago. Hippocrates described it, Cromwell died from it, Charles II and Louis XIV nearly perished, and Rome was saved several times from Germanic armies whose ranks were decimated by the deadly fever. From Italy and Romania to Poland and the English Channel, malarial mosquitoes ruled over Europe for centuries. Homegrown malaria was not eradicated in Germany until 1950, in the Netherlands until 1959.

Aggressive interventions, including widespread use of DDT, finally ended its deadly grip. Once the United States and Europe became malaria-free, however, they began to impose restrictions that have perpetuated malaria elsewhere, especially in Africa.

They banned DDT, while grudgingly leaving a rarely honoured exception in the Stockholm Convention. With few exceptions, aid agencies refused to supply or support the use of insecticides, especially DDT. They still promote bed nets and education – while awaiting a vaccine that’s still a decade away, and mud-and-thatch huts miraculously becoming modern homes with doors and window screens.

Not surprisingly, there has been another Holocaust of Africans every few years, and malaria deaths since the 1972 DDT ban may exceed the entire World War II death toll. It is a travesty worse than colonialism ever was, a human rights violation of monstrous proportions.

I have seen this devastation with my own eyes. Malaria destroyed the lives of my wife’s African friends and family members. Last Christmas, my nephew returned to a Ugandan school that he sponsors, to find that 50 of its 500 young students had died from malaria in just 12 months. My daughter-in-law lost two sisters, two nephews and her little son.

It’s time for Europe to end its deadly policies. Individual countries and the EU Parliament must issue an unequivocal declaration, supporting DDT as a vital component of any malaria control programme. Affirming the right of every country’s health minister to decide which weapons to use in combating disease. Agreeing to support insecticide-spraying programmes. Saying trade bans and lethal supermarket campaigns will not be tolerated. And pledging to penalise any country or organisation that tries to block life-saving insecticide programmes.

For too long, the European Union, environmental groups and healthcare agencies let horribly misguided policies perpetuate malaria’s global reign of terror. They have it within their power to save millions of lives, and improve health and economic conditions for billions.

If they can find the necessary moral clarity and political willpower, countless mothers and daughters, fathers and sons will be spared the ravages of this killer disease. And by the next Africa Malaria Day, there will actually be something to celebrate – not just in Africa, but in Asian and Latin American countries that are still plagued by this ancient disease.

Author: Roy Innis is national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the USA’s oldest and most respected civil rights organisations. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 25 April 2006

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