DDT: Hippocratic Oath Turned Hypocritical?

Published on 10th October 2006

Dr. Arata Kochi recently announced that the World Health Organization is again emphasizing DDT in malaria control. Other methods had been dismal failures and millions of people are dying every year, 90 percent in Africa. DDT is safe, effective and essential, he pointed out, if the world is to prevent this mosquito-carried disease. Ever since, Pesticide Action Network (PAN), Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and other radical groups have been attacking Dr. Kochi, WHO and DDT.

It’s bad enough when PAN uses myths, scare tactics and outright lies to pressure African governments not to use this vital weapon while countless Africans die needlessly from a deadly but preventable disease. When irresponsible doctors in PSR do it, they are violating the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm,” the oath says. Don’t worry about perpetuating disease, PSR and PAN insist. And so they emphasize minor, far-fetched, speculative dangers from using insecticides – while ignoring the enormous, real, life-or-death risks that DDT and other insecticides could prevent.  

Even Environmental Defense, which launched the anti-DDT campaign four decades ago, now says this chemical keeps mosquitoes out of homes and should be used for malaria control. Officials at World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace say DDT should be used, if it would save lives. But PAN and PSR haven’t budged. And why would they? They can afford to attack DDT. Most of them and their donors live in countries that are malaria-free, thanks to DDT – and attacking insecticides is the reason for their very existence, the key to their fund raising and job security. But as despicable as this is, it’s a secondary issue.  

DDT does things no other weapon, at any price, can do. Sprayed in tiny amounts just once or twice a year on the inside walls of homes, it keeps 90 percent of mosquitoes from even entering – and keeps those that do come in from biting. That’s why it has slashed malaria rates by 75 percent in South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and other countries where it has been used. Since DDT is no longer used in agriculture, mosquitoes are unlikely to become resistant to it. Studies show that even those that are immune to its killing properties are kept away by its repellant effects. The alleged dangers of DDT are ridiculously small or irrelevant compared to the dangers of diseases inflicted on Africa by tiny buzzing insects. Malaria alone infects over 400 million Africans annually, and kills the equivalent of ten jumbo jets full of passengers crashing every day. It enslaves the continent, kills babies and pregnant women, prevents people from working, perpetuates poverty, keeps tourists and investors from coming to Africa, and reduces the continent’s economic productivity by billions of dollars a year. In Kenya alone it costs 170 million lost working days annually.  

The PAN-PSR slurs against DDT are false, speculative and without scientific evidence. Reduced lactation in nursing mothers, low birth weights in babies and impaired immune systems in children. No scientific study has ever proven any of these claims – which is why most environmental websites say some researchers “think” DDT “could” be having these effects. However, malaria absolutely does cause lactation, birthweight and immune problems. Any responsible, science-based healthcare program ought to do everything possible to reduce malaria, and not worry about bogus risks from the best weapon in our arsenal.  

A recent study claimed test scores were a few points lower in young children whose mothers had been exposed to DDT during pregnancy. However, other researchers have found no such results, and Professor Eskenazi herself said the problem may disappear by the time the children enter school. Malaria, by contrast, causes serious and permanent brain damage. No wonder she said she’d choose DDT over the risk of losing more children to this disease. Moreover, the women in Eskenazi’s study had been exposed to massive amounts of DDT from agricultural spraying, which makes her findings irrelevant to disease control programs that spray tiny amounts of DDT on walls.  

Some scientists have claimed that DDT causes cancer in mice. Others found no such link, and one famous study failed to admit that mice that were not fed DDT developed more cancers than those that were fed the repellant-insecticide. Millions of soldiers and civilians were sprayed with DDT during and after World War II, to prevent malaria and typhus. Newsreel footage clearly shows Americans eating picnic meals in clouds of DDT. No study ever found that any of these people got cancer as a result.  

The absurd claims that DDT causes fertility problems have one goal: generate fear. Hundreds of millions of homes have been sprayed with DDT to control disease. There has been no documented increase of Parkinson’s disease, lower sperm counts, drops in fertility, or reduced male sexual performance. Claims of environmental harm stem from widespread DDT use in agriculture. But the primary study that found DDT caused thinning of bird egg shells employed calcium-deficient diets. When it was conducted again with proper amounts of calcium, the eggshells were normal. US bird populations increased significantly while DDT was being used heavily in agriculture. Studies also found that eagle populations were reduced not by DDT, but by illegal hunting and high levels of pollution.  

DDT can harm fish – but so do laundry detergents and other chemicals. Spraying small quantities of DDT on interior walls poses no threat to wildlife. The Stockholm Convention specifically allows DDT for disease control, and will continue to do so until an acceptable and effective alternative is found. So far, no other chemical comes close to DDT for keeping mosquitoes out of homes and preventing them from biting. Neither PAN, PSR nor any other environmental group has ever contributed even one shilling toward finding a substitute; instead, they spend millions of dollars a year attacking DDT and other insecticides. 

EU Commission President Barroso recently wrote a letter to US Senator Tom Coburn. “The European Union will not impose trade sanctions on countries that use DDT for disease control in accord with the Stockholm Convention,” Barroso said. “They have a right and responsibility to do so,” he added, “and only individual shipments with DDT levels above prescribed tolerance levels would ever be affected.”There should be no fear of contamination. Indoor spraying will be conducted by trained technicians, under WHO and Stockholm Convention guidelines. The likelihood that any DDT will get into the environment or onto crops is extremely small.  

Dr. Kochi and his colleagues in the WHO, USAID, President Bush’s Malaria Initiative, and Global Fund for the Prevention of Malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS made their decisions to use DDT again after carefully analyzing numerous medical and scientific studies. For Africans the choice is simple. Worry about make-believe risks cited by insecticide-hating activist groups and continue enduring horrendous, and needless, disease, death and poverty from malaria, or applaud the wise decisions by global healthcare agencies, embrace the use of DDT as one more vital weapon, and begin controlling this Killer Disease. Africans are wise enough to know what to do.

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