New EU pesticide legislation threatens African malaria control initiatives

New European Union pesticide legislation was passed this week with the goal of protecting human health and the environment in Europe. On first inspection one may think that this is a positive step, since there must be viable alternatives that do not adversely affect food production. Furthermore, one would assume that the EU would have conducted appropriate regulatory impact assessments to avoid any unintended consequences from occurring. You would be wrong on both counts. The new regulations not only affect food production but also threaten the public health initiatives in distant countries – mainly poor countries in Africa. Although the regulations seek to limit the use of insecticides for agricultural use in the EU, it overlooks the fact that insecticides are vital for disease control elsewhere in the world.

Environmental pressures from the North have resulted in chemicals characterised as public health insecticides (PHIs) not being used as widely as they should to control insect-borne diseases, thus adversely affecting the ability of poor countries to control these diseases. These new regulations compound the woes of poor individuals battling to come to grips with the devastating effects of malaria and other insect-borne diseases across the globe.

Malaria kills a child every thirty seconds in Africa. The majority of deaths world-wide, over a million each year, occur in children under the age of five and in pregnant women. Effective malaria control saves lives, prevents the trauma of unnecessary deaths in families, and improves local economies. Malaria sufferers have great difficulty in carrying out sustained work, which intensifies human misery and poverty in areas where the disease is prevalent. Malaria is thus not only a human tragedy; it’s an economic one as well. In malarial countries it is estimated that the disease reduces per capita economic growth by 1.3 percent per year. This equates to approximately $12 billion in forgone income.

The only proven and consistent method of insect-borne disease prevention (where vaccines do not exist) is to control the disease vector, which in malaria is the mosquito. Even where an effective vaccine is available, insufficient vaccination rates can lead to disease outbreaks, which require vector control for containment. Vector control strategies involve the use of tiny amounts of insecticide that can be sprayed on the inside walls of houses in a process known as indoor residual spraying (IRS). Similarly, people can sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs), including long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs), and stagnant water bodies where mosquitoes breed can be treated with a larvacide.

These vector control strategies are the most effective interventions that we have in our arsenal in the fight to control malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Indeed, no country in the world has ever eradicated malaria without the use of insecticides.

In the 21st century, it is reasonable to hope for rigorous, science-based regulations of chemicals that take into account the actual risks that substances pose to humans and the environment. Unfortunately, the new EU regulations create uncertainty and open the door for bias and political interference. For instance, a substance can be banned if it is deemed to interfere with the body’s hormone system – known as endocrine disruption. However, since there is no agreed upon definition of endocrine disruption, the way is open for political interference for as long as solid scientific evidence is unavailable.

Almost all chemicals currently used for malaria control were developed for the agricultural sector and simply adapted for public health comprise approximately 1 per cent of the total market for pesticides. Considering how small this market is, it is highly unlikely that production of PHIs would continue if a product is banned for agriculture. If production did continue, it would be on a much smaller scale, causing the price of insecticides to rise – something that poor governments simply could not afford.

As insecticide resistance to the existing range of pesticides increases, public health programmes desperately need new, safe and effective chemicals. But new investment, research and development are unlikely to occur in a poor country with a poor regulatory regime. A Boston Consulting Group report estimates that currently it costs around $400 million to bring a new pesticide to market. These costs escalated by more than 500% in the past 20 years mainly due to the increasingly onerous regulations imposed around the world. You can argue that regulations are necessary and beneficial; but if they are ill-defined and open to bias, they impose costs that could far outweigh their benefits.

Restricting access to insecticides and discouraging the development of new chemicals exacerbates the scourge of malaria and other insect-borne diseases and the result is many more lives lost unnecessarily. Pressure must be brought to bear on all EU structures so that they consider the unintended consequences of any legislation they impose on public health outside the EU and ensure that their regulations are clear, predictable, unbiased and based on sound science.

Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Health Policy Unit (a division of the Free Market Foundation) and a director of Africa Fighting Malaria. 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 Foundation.

HPU Feature Article / 19 January 2009
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