Double standards on disease control

Published on 31st May 2005

Human rights issues continue to dominate the world stage. Ending “degrading treatment\" of terrorists, the death penalty for murderers, family violence against women and policies against indigenous languages top the list at the UN Human Rights Commission, European Court of Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Euro Court alone has 78,000 rights cases on its docket.

This February, President Bush met with the heroic, real-life manager of “Hotel Rwanda.” He later went to Latvia, to recall the millions who died in wars, concentration camps, killing fields and genocidal conflicts over the past 65 years. Meanwhile, the US Congress and media devoted endless hours to the tragic plight of one woman, Terri Schiavo, and Cameron Diaz raved about how “awesome” it is to live in poverty.

But conspicuously absent from all these discussions is a fundamental human right: access to modern weapons – insecticides – that can effectively combat a disease that has killed over 50 million people since 1972.

According to UNICEF, last year malaria sent more African children to shallow graves than any other infectious disease – three times as many as HIV/AIDS. Year after year, this silent, vicious executioner infects 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, kills up to 2 million (half of them children), leaves tens of thousands with permanent brain damage, and costs the region $12 billion in lost economic production. It sickens 100 million more in Asian and Latin American nations.

“From colonial times until the 1940s, malaria was the American disease,” says Dr. Robert Desowitz, professor of tropical medicine at the University of North Carolina. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it thrived from New York to Florida, from North Carolina to California. Up to 7 million Americans were stricken by it every year until the mid-1920s, and 3,900 died in 1936. For centuries, it struck down people of all ages in England, Holland, Italy and other parts of Europe.

But by the early 1950s, it was gone, and all but forgotten. We used DDT, window screens and other measures to gradually eradicate the malaria parasite from its human and insect hosts. Today, we still spray pesticides (mostly by airplanes) to control mosquitoes and the West Nile virus that some carry.

However, we apply a vastly different standard when it comes to poor developing countries that are still wracked by malaria. Indeed, these human rights champions’ own institutions and allies – the European Union, World Health Organization, World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, UNICEF and dozens of ideological environmental groups like Greenpeace, Beyond Pesticides and the Natural Resource Defense Council – are at the forefront of lethal campaigns and policies. They prevent the most malaria-ridden nations from using the same insecticides that help make us disease-free, healthy and prosperous. For this, they are all but canonized by the “corporate social responsibility” and “sustainable development” industry.

These organizations will not support, advocate, fund or permit the use of pesticides in any anti-malaria programs. And amid all their interminable accusations and deliberations, the human rights champions never even mention this deadly human-rights abuse.

In February, the EU charge’ d’affaires to Uganda warned that the country’s export of fish, flowers and cereals to Europe could be disrupted if it used DDT to reduce a malaria epidemic that kills up to 100,000 Ugandans every year. “Guy Rijcken’s vile threat is an abuse of his authority and a serious human-rights violation,” said Congress of Racial Equality international affairs director Cyril Boynes, Jr. “No country faced with a health crisis of this magnitude should have wealthy, healthy Europeans telling it the lives of its citizens must come second” to conjectural health and environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, Canada gave Ethiopia US$1.5 million toward a “national implementation plan” to eliminate persistent organic pollutants, including DDT. This impoverished African nation grieves over nearly 150,000 malaria deaths a year (including 95,000 children) – meaning the value of this “inducement” to comply with the Stockholm Convention is US$10 per dead Ethiopian.

Prime Minister Paul Martin might have been “visibly shaken” by tsunami damage in Sri Lanka. But he seems little perturbed by policies that prolong the suffering and death from a readily preventable disease, in the name of addressing absurd fears that spraying DDT on African huts might somehow harm polar bears. This is particularly egregious in view of the fact that both Canada and the USA sprayed hundreds millions of pounds directly into the environment over a 20-period, primarily for agricultural and forest management purposes – with no harm to polar bears.

USAID insists that DDT “would be considered” for malaria control programs, but only if a full environmental impact assessment demonstrates that DDT “is the only effective alternative” and “could be used safely” under strict WHO protocols (which reflect all these agencies’ exaggerated concern about pesticides). USAID says it cannot support pesticides that are banned in the United States, even in epidemic areas, and claims insecticide-treated nets are just as effective as DDT.

But mosquito net programs have not proven nearly as effective in controlling malaria as spraying houses with DDT, Desowitz and Professor Donald Roberts of the US Uniformed Health Services University points out. South Africa slashed its malaria rates by 80% in just 18 months by spraying the walls and eaves of traditional mud and thatch huts twice a year with small amounts of DDT – and then by 93% within three years, by augmenting this with new artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) drugs. No bed net program comes close.

Ecuador has cut its malaria rates by 60% by using DDT – while Bolivia, which bowed to international pressure and banned the pesticide’s use, has seen malaria increase by 80% since 1993, notes Dr. Silvia Pasquier of Bolivia’s St. Thomas Aquinas College. 

USAID is now helping farmers increase the production of Artemisia plants, with the goal of producing 20 million to 40 million pediatric doses of ACT by 2006. This is a welcome development. But it’s not enough.

500 million people get malaria every year, and an 80-93% reduction in disease and death rates is clearly possible. Why should these impoverished countries have to settle for less – and accept far more needless deaths every year – when we certainly would not?

Moreover, says University of Ottawa infectious disease expert Dr. Amir Attaran, for many years now USAID has not spent “one dime for any actual effort, either pesticides, bed nets or drugs.” Incredibly, it spends some 85% of its annual US$80 million malaria budget on mostly US-based consultants, notes an exhaustive analysis by Africa Fighting Malaria’s Dr. Roger Bate. Their meetings, educational materials, exhortations to use bed nets and assertions of “progress” in the war on malaria have done little to promote actual improvements.

A recent WHO-UNICEF report echoes this illusory progress. In reality, according to Attaran, Bate and others, since the “Roll Back Malaria” campaign was launched in 1998, global malaria disease and death rates have actually increased by nearly 10%. One shudders to think what lack of progress would look like.

For its part, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions annually to find a vaccine against malaria – while refusing to discuss supporting the use of pesticides. Experts like Professor Roberts doubt that a practical vaccine will be developed for a decade or more, because the malaria parasite mutates constantly. But even assuming the research is ultimately successful, as we all hope it is – and the world’s 2 billion people who are most at risk of getting the disease are eventually immunized – the more fundamental question is: How many uncounted millions will die unnecessarily in the meantime?

Rijken, radical environmentalists and many aid agencies detest pesticides – especially DDT, the cheapest, most effective and longest-lasting one currently available. They argue that DDT can remain in soil for years, harms birds and fish, might cause stomach cancer in crocodiles, contaminates food chains, has been detected on produce and in breast milk, and can cause premature births and slow reflexes in babies. They continue to trumpet these claims, even though no scientific study has ever found harm to humans, wildlife or the environment from spraying DDT on houses for malaria control.

Of course, all chemicals have side effects, and risks must be balanced against clear benefits. One important class of chemicals causes anemia and fatigue, increased risk of infection, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, and even fetal defects and fertility problems. But we use them anyway – and any chemo-phobic activist who tried to get these powerful chemicals banned would be tarred and feathered by the cancer patients whose survival depends on them. As to DDT’s effects on babies, dead babies have no reflexes.

“For Rijcken and the European Union to equate Africa’s human and economic devastation with ‘detectable’ levels of DDT in soils, birds or mother’s breast milk is absurd,” says Boynes. “For them to suggest that an impoverished country like Uganda should monitor and test all its produce, in case some might have minuscule traces of DDT – to assuage Europeans’ fears of chemicals – is incomprehensible.”

If the United States had malaria rates equivalent to Africa’s, every year 100 million Americans would be infected, our hospitals would be overwhelmed, and at least 250,000 people would die – half of them children. We would demand immediate action, with every pesticide known to man, and would not tolerate anyone telling us to rely on bed nets or wait patiently for a vaccine.

If Washington, New York, Brussels and Geneva had one-tenth of Uganda’s malaria problem, even WHO and USAID bureaucrats – even Greenpeace zealots – would demand DDT, right NOW!

For people battling flies, mosquitoes and killer diseases in developing countries, the situation is no longer tolerable. “We Africans worry about losing more of our babies – the future of our nations – to malaria,” says Liberian Syrulwa Somah, professor of environmental and occupational safety and health at North Carolina A&T State University. “We are sick and tired of seeing our children die daily from a disease that is readily preventable.”

An estimated 800,000 Rwandese died during the 1994 genocide. Imagine this slaughter increased by 20 to 120% and repeated over and over for years. That’s the death toll from malaria.

“We think you’re dirt,” said “Hotel Rwanda’s” Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), as the United Nations cut its poorly equipped security force from 2,500 to 270 and prohibited its peacekeepers from using their weapons. “You’re dung,” Oliver said flatly. “You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.”

Today, other international bureaucrats prohibit malaria workers from using pesticides. And the unnecessary, unfathomable, unconscionable death toll continues to mount.

It’s time to see this for what it actually is – a human rights atrocity of vast proportions. Only World War II killed more people than malaria has since 1972, when EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus ignored the findings of his own scientific panel, banned DDT in the United States and began this tragedy.

It’s time to say, Enough!

 


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