The World Health Organization intends to phase out chemotherapy drugs, due to concerns about their health effects, WHO Public Health and Environment Director Dr. Maria Neira announced recently. Those effects include anemia, diarrhoea, reduced resistance to infection, potential birth defects and hair loss.
"These drugs save lives, but they are dangerous," she stated. "WHO is determined to end their use, motivate researchers to develop safer cancer treatments, and emphasize acceptable alternatives, like broccoli."
Imagine the shock and outrage that would follow such an announcement. Europe and the United States would demand her ouster and threaten to slash WHO's budget, if it tried such a thing.
But of course, Dr. Neira and WHO made no such proposal. Instead, she and her co-conspirators are promoting something even more irresponsible – and deadly. They want to reverse the September 2006 decision to restore DDT to the Organization's malaria-fighting arsenal.
"WHO is concerned about health effects associated with DDT," she said during a recent conference in Dakar, Senegal. Her position, not the September decision, represents WHO's position regarding DDT for malaria control and its commitment to phasing the chemical out, she asserted.
Dr. Arata Kochi, director of WHO's malaria division, made his decision based on decades of evidence, and because he recognized that no other chemical in existence, at any price, does what DDT does. He said that he did so because he had studied the evidence, concluded DDT was safe for people and the environment when used for indoor residual spraying, realized there simply is no substitute for DDT at this time, and recognized that WHO's no-insecticides policy had been disastrous. Millions had died, and malaria was not being brought under control, much less "rolled back" or eradicated.
Dr. Kochi's decision angered certain people in the WHO and radical environmental groups. They have begun speaking out against the decision, and even assert that it does not represent the Organization's official policy -even though it reflects the position of its malaria Program Director and was approved by its late Director-General, Dr. Lee. One of the most vocal critics appears to be Dr. Maria Neira, who seems to put environmental considerations and speculative, trivial health risks of using DDT ahead of the countless lives it could save.
Sprayed just once or twice a year on the walls of houses, this powerful repellant keeps most mosquitoes from entering; irritates those that do come in, so they don't bite; and kills any that land. Used this way, DDT can reduce malaria rates by 75 percent - and it is perfectly safe for people and the environment.
In effect, DDT places a huge bednet over the entire house. From dusk to dawn, it protects the inhabitants, whether they are sleeping or doing housework and homework.
The US Agency for International Development also reversed its policies and redeployed DDT. And European Commission President Barroso wrote that the EU recognizes and supports the right of countries to use DDT, under Stockholm Convention and WHO guidelines.
Fed up with the sickness and death, African countries are again using DDT and other sprays, not just to stabilize or "roll back" malaria, but to eradicate it.
Dr. Neira and her colleagues appear wedded to the disastrous policies that kept malaria at unconscionable levels: 400 million cases and up to 2 million deaths a year - half of them children. They continue to oppose insecticides, especially DDT, and insist that bednets, drugs, education and other "acceptable," non-chemical interventions will suffice. These other interventions are also essential. But they are not enough to end malaria's reign of terror.
The nasty effects of chemo drugs are real. The alleged risks of using DDT are pure speculation. They are trumpeted by radical groups like Pesticide Action Network, who insist: Some researchers think DDT could be inhibiting lactation and might be related to premature births, low birth weights and slow reflexes in babies.
These risks are unproven and trivial, compared to the undeniable risks that DDT can prevent.
"Millions cannot work or go to school for weeks every year because of malaria," Uganda's Fiona Kobusingye points out. "Countless people die. Mothers have anemia, premature births and tiny babies because of it. Parents and children get severe permanent brain damage from it. And many people die from HIV/AIDS and other diseases that are made worse by malaria."
Anti-pesticide activists claim Mexico "greatly reduced malaria without using DDT," by employing politically correct alternatives to insecticides. They deliberately ignore two critical points.
* According to the Pan American Health Organization, Mexico had a mere 3,400 cases of malaria in 2004. In Kenya that year, 34,000 people died from malaria! In Nigeria, 58,000 parents and children died; in Uganda, 100,000.
* Mexico's real weapon is drugs. To treat those 3,400 cases, it dispensed 10.3 million Chloroquine, Amodiaquine and Primaquine tablets! These powerful drugs can cause genetic mutations and physical defects in fetuses. They also carry high risks that the malaria parasites will become resistant to the drugs.
To say this is preferable to DDT is preposterous. It is medical malpractice.
No wonder people have called anti-insecticide policies "eco-imperialism," "eco-manslaughter," "neo-colonialism" and "racist experiments" on the world's poor.
No wonder they ask whether anti-insecticide policies are driven in part by neo-Malthusian eugenics theorists like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote in The Population Bomb that "exported death control," in the form of DDT and other technologies that prevent disease and death, is a major cause of "over-population."
Club of Rome founder Alexander King said, "My chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it greatly added to the population problem." And oceanographer Jacques Cousteau told Novelle Observateur, "In order to stabilize world populations, we must eliminate 350,000 people a day."
Whether such obscene attitudes are at the root of anti-insecticide policies is somewhat beside the point, however. The reality is that those policies perpetuate disease, poverty and death.
"We continue to squander resources on half-measures, when we could use proven, effective tools," says, African Union disease control coordinator John Kabayo. "Bed nets are meaningless in societies that have no beds. To totally and predictably eradicate malaria, we need a combination of tools and strategies, applied in a dedicated program of systematic military-style operations. Bed nets on their own will, at best, only divert resources and prolong the misery perpetrated by this needless disease."
Under the Stockholm Convention, whether to use insecticides or spatial repellants like DDT is a decision for health ministers in countries that face endemic and epidemic malaria. Bureaucrats in malaria-free Geneva offices have no right to deny them to malaria victims.
WHO legitimately worries about obesity, cancer and smoking. But malaria is one of the world's most critical healthcare issues. It should also be one of the easiest to control, and even eradicate.
WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan needs to give her unqualified support to Dr. Kochi - and let Dr. Neira know she must put people's lives first, and stop undermining agency policies, or find other employment. Returning to the lethal policies of recent years would be unforgivable.
By Paul Driessen, a senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power Black death; and Cyril Boynes, a CORE's Director of International Affairs and Honorary Consul General of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom of Uganda to the Americas.