Should we Ban Chemotherapy too?

Published on 2nd August 2005

Would you take medications that could cause anemia, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss – even increased risk of infection and fetal defects? Most people with terminal cancer would jump at the chance to take such risks. And if an activist “stakeholder” tried to prevent them from undergoing chemotherapy – because of “ethical” concerns about its “dangers” or a preference for “more appropriate” alternatives like surgery, broccoli or hospice care – their response would be fast and furious.

Africa faces a similar situation. Only instead of cancer, the killer is malaria. Instead of chemotherapy drugs, the interventions are insecticides. And in addition to activists, patients must contend with healthcare agencies that often oppose insecticides and promote largely ineffective alternatives.

Malaria infects up to 500,000,000 people a year – more men, women and children that live in the United States, Canada and Mexico combined! It kills 2,000,000 every year – the population of Houston, Texas. The vast majority live in sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly 90% are children and pregnant women. In 2002, malaria killed 150,000 Ethiopians, 100,000 Ugandans and 34,000 Kenyan children.  

Victims become so weak they cannot work for weeks on end. Many are left with permanent brain damage – and immune systems so enfeebled that they die of AIDS, typhus, dysentery or tuberculosis. Malaria costs impoverished Africa $12 billion in lost productivity every year.

However, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, U.S. Agency for International Development, wealthy foundations and environmental activists still insist that African nations rely on inadequate bed net, drug and “integrated vector management” programs – and avoid pesticides, especially DDT.

If the United States had rates akin to Africa’s, 100,000,000 Americans would get malaria every year and 250,000 children would die. Its hospitals would be overwhelmed, its economy devastated, and citizens would demand immediate action – using every pesticide and other weapon in existence.

But the United States and Europe (over)used DDT to eradicate malaria. They then banned the pesticide and now generally oppose its use. Nevertheless, a few African nations still spray DDT in tiny amounts on the walls and eaves of cinderblock or mud-and-thatch houses. For six months, it repels mosquitoes, kills any that land on walls and irritates the rest, so they don’t bite.

No other pesticide, at any price, is this effective, and even mosquitoes resistant to DDT’s killer talents succumb to its repellent properties. Used this way, virtually no DDT gets into the environment. Most important, it’s safe for humans. Hundreds of millions of people – American GIs, Holocaust survivors, and parents and children all over the USA, Europe and Asia – were sprayed with DDT, with no significant ill effects.

Indeed, the worst thing Greenpeace and other activists can say is that “measurable quantities” of DDT and its DDE metabolite are “present” in human fatty tissue, blood and mother’s breast milk. Some researchers, they claim, “think” DDE “could” be inhibiting lactation and “may” therefore be “contributing” to “lactation failure” around the world.

In fact, lactation failure results mostly from malnutrition and disease. The problem is minor compared to the effects of chemotherapy – and irrelevant compared to the risk of losing more children to malaria. “African mothers would be overjoyed if DDT in our bodies was their biggest worry,” says Ugandan farmer and businesswoman Fiona Kobusingye. They’d be thrilled if Greenpeace and others would show greater concern for the lives of African mothers and children, by supporting insecticide use.

South Africa’s DDT household spraying program cut malaria rates by 80% in 18 months. The country was then able to treat a much smaller number of seriously ill patients with new artemisinin-based drugs, and slash malaria rates by over 90% in just three years!

Mozambique trains a few people in each community, and sends them out to spray every house twice a year, in a successful and inexpensive program. Zambia has a similar program. However, when Uganda announced earlier this year that it was going to use DDT to control malaria, the EU warned that it might ban all agricultural exports from the country, if even a trace of DDT was found on them!

Last year, USAID spent $80 million “on malaria” but 85 percent of this went to consultants, and 5 percent to promoting the use of insecticide-treated nets. It spent nothing on actually buying nets, drugs or pesticides. Too often, USAID, WHO and UNICEF emphasize ultra precaution about alleged risks from pesticides – at the expense of millions of deaths from diseases that pesticides could prevent. They proclaim insecticide-treated bed nets a success for reducing malaria rates by 20% – but say DDT was a failure because it did not completely eradicate the disease. Worst, until just a year ago, they were providing Africans with anti-malarial drugs that they had known for years fail 50 to 80% of the time.

No wonder malaria rates have risen 10% in the seven years since their Roll Back Malaria campaign promised to cut rates in half by 2010. DDT will never control malaria by itself. However, it is a vital weapon against a disease carried by different parasites and many species of mosquitoes, some of which can breed in hoof prints during the rainy season.

Decisions about which weapons to use, where and when, should be made by health ministers in countries with malaria problems – not by anti-pesticide activists and bureaucrats in air-conditioned, malaria-free offices in Washington, Geneva or Brussels. These health ministers need a precautionary principle that safeguards families from real, immediate, life-threatening risks – instead of condemning them to poverty, disease and premature death, to prevent minor, conjectural risks from pesticides.

Most important, African and other malaria-endemic countries need progress NOW – not 20 or 50 years from now, when (hopefully) a vaccine has finally been developed, sufficient artemisinin drugs are available for every victim, mosquito breeding areas are controlled, and communities have modern homes and hospitals (with electricity, window screens and running water).

Access to life-saving pesticides is a basic human right. We wouldn’t ban chemotherapy because those potent drugs present risk, or prohibit Florida and New York from using insecticides to protect people, horses and birds against West Nile virus. We must stop preventing African nations from using DDT and other insecticides to control diseases that kill millions of their citizens annually.

President Bush and many members of Congress support major funding increases to combat malaria and break Africa’s perpetual cycle of disease, famine and poverty. However, this money will do little to reduce disease if it is spent on more consultants, conferences, reports and bed nets – and only insignificant amounts are directed to pesticide and other programs that actually work.

The President and Congress need to ensure that health agencies’ financial practices are open to scrutiny, their misguided policies and priorities are corrected, and they are held accountable for the success or failure of their programs. They need to ensure that insecticides and household spraying with DDT are restored to the world’s arsenal for combating malaria.

Otherwise millions will continue to die on the altar of politically correct ideologies.



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