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Thursday, December 09, 2004

How to Save 2 Million Lives a Year

Caught up in news of death rates from wars, we lose track of those things tht kill millions each year. For example, according to this article, from Africa Fighting Malaria, over 2 million people a year die from malaria each year with about 1.8 million of those deaths occuring in Africa.

The article alleges that these deaths are largely preventable, except for resistence to using the one approach that has had success.
The world environmental movement, while trying to be a friend to nature, has unfortunately often been an enemy to man. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her famous book Silent Spring, which offered a frightening but poorly argued view of man and nature imperilled by the over-use of synthetic chemicals. The target of her attacks was DDT, then being used in large amounts in farming as well as for public health.

To some extent the book launched the modern environmental movement and the campaigns that it spurred eventually led to the banning of DDT for agricultural use in 1972 by the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new government department was determined to show that it could act boldly, but many of the fears Carson expressed were greatly exaggerated, and there was no scientific basis for the banning of DDT outright (although restriction in agricultural use was certainly warranted).

The consequences of this decision can be demonstrated by the example of India, which had the institutions, infrastructure and importantly, the domestic budget, to maintain a malaria control programme on its own terms. In 1953, India’s population was a third of its present size, but the annual incidence of malaria was 75 million cases. That year India started using DDT as a core of its IRS programme. It has continued using DDT ever since and the government still manufactures its own supply. Against what might have been the background level of more than 200 million cases a year the current incidence is around 2 million cases with the death rate in the low thousands.

But DDT has become more difficult to procure and use and pressure from environmentalist groups against the insecticide remains. On 17 May 2004, an international treaty aimed at restricting or eliminating persistent organic pollutants, known as the Stockholm Convention, came into force. Although the Convention was initially  designed to ban DDT for all uses, including malaria control, strong opposition, notably from South Africa, ensured that a DDT exemption for public heath was secured. The enduring problem for many malarial countries, however, is that despite the exemption, few donors will actually fund any IRS, let alone use of DDT.


The question of DDT and the consequences of its use needs to be discussed in non-emotional scientific terms. The deaths of two million people a year demands some answers.

Hat tip: Junk Science.com

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