Malaria still kills one million every year.
Environmental activists this week marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which happened to fall three days before World Malaria Day. Insofar as Earth Day politics have contributed to today’s malaria epidemic, the two events are related.
Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, was a leading opponent of the insecticide DDT, which remains the cheapest and most effective way to combat malarial mosquitoes. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” misleadingly linked pesticides to cancer and is generally credited with popularizing environmental awareness. But other leading greens of the period, including Nelson, biologist Paul Ehrlich and ecologist Garrett Hardin, were also animated by a belief that growth in human populations was harming the environment.
“The same powerful forces which create the crisis of air pollution also are threatening our freshwater resources, our woods, our wildlife,” said Nelson. “These forces are the rapid increase in population, industrialization, urbanization and scientific technology.” In his book “The Population Bomb,” Mr. Ehrlich criticized DDT for being too effective in reducing death rates and thus contributing to “overpopulation.” Hardin opposed spraying pesticides in the Third World because “every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.” For these activists, malaria was nature’s way of controlling population growth, and DDT got in the way.
Today, malaria still claims about one million lives every year—mostly women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s no evidence that spraying the chemical inside homes in the amounts needed to combat the disease harms humans, animals or the environment. Yet DDT remains severely underutilized in the fight against malaria because the intellectual descendants of Senator Nelson continue to hold sway at the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.
The good news is that the Obama Administration has continued the Bush policy of supporting DDT spraying in Zambia, Mozambique and other countries where the locals want it used. “Groups like the Pesticide Action Network have lobbied the U.S. Agency for International Development to stop spraying DDT, and Obama is ignoring them so far,” says Richard Tren of Africa Fighting Malaria, an advocacy group. “They’re prioritizing what makes sense from a science and public health point of view.”
DDT helped to eradicate malaria in the U.S. and Europe after World War II, and the U.S. is right to take the lead in reforming public health insecticide policy and putting the lives of the world’s poor above green ideology.