Banning DDT increases deaths from malaria in poor countries

The United Nations Environment Program is pushing a worldwide ban on the pesticide DDT as one of 12 "persistent organic pollutants." This has sparked a debate about the use of DDT to control malaria in developing nations. Malaria annually sickens at least 300 million and kills more than one million, mostly children, in the poorest tropical nations.

DDT was banned from agricultural use in industrialised countries due to concerns about its effects on birds of prey. However, the dangers of DDT from concentrated agricultural use differ significantly from spraying the interior surfaces of homes and huts. The concentration of DDT used to spray a house once or twice yearly would have an environmental effect less than 0.04 percent of the effect of spraying a 320-acre cotton field.

DDT repels and kills mosquitoes, decreasing both the odds of being bitten and the survival of parasite-carrying mosquitoes that can infect others. After five decades of experience, even environmental groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility concede that DDT is "highly effective" in malaria control.

  • Despite international pressure to discontinue use of DDT, Ecuador renewed house spraying in the early 1990s and saw a rapid decrease in malaria cases.

  • In less than 20 years of spaying houses with DDT, Sri Lanka reduced its malaria burden from 2.8 million cases and 7,300 deaths to 17 cases and no deaths.

  • India and South America achieved similarly impressive reductions and several countries fully eradicated malaria.

    Malaria subtracts more than one percent of the gross domestic product growth rate of sub-Saharan nations, where the compounded loss since 1965 now reaches up to $100 billion a year in foregone income. Critics argue that rich nations insisting that poorer nations do without DDT are exercising "eco-colonialism" that can impoverish no less than the imperial colonialism of the past.

    Source: Amir Attaran, et al., Balancing Risks on the Backs of the Poor, July 2000, Nature Medicine.

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