The New York Times on December 23 published an editorial recommending that the United States and other wealthy nations help the poor countries combat malaria, a disease that kills millions of people and disables many more, by encouraging them to fight this deadly scourge by resuming the spraying of DDT. DDT has saved more lives than any chemical devised by man, and banning it has resulted in more deaths than any single decision made by man. The Times is to be commended for recognizing that it was a huge mistake to impose that ban on countries where malaria was prevalent.
Recently Notra Trulock represented Accuracy in Media at a conference on combating tropical diseases sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington, D.C. The question of reviving the spraying of DDT to combat malaria was not scheduled for discussion, but Trulock raised it informally with some of the participants. He found no one at all sympathetic to the idea. One of them said that if it was done at all it would have to be under a different name than DDT.
Malaria kills one child somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. Between 300 and 500 million people are infected annually. Estimated deaths are one million a year. Ninety percent of these occur in Africa, but it is experiencing a massive resurgence in the tropical Americas. The Pan American Health Organization says it is now endemic in the Western Hemisphere. And it is showing up in places where it has not been seen in decades.
Malaria was virtually eliminated from most tropical countries by spraying houses with DDT. Banning it was a tragedy. That would not have happened if the politicians had listened to scientists like Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, professor emeritus of San Jose State University. Dr. Edwards has been a critic of the ban on DDT for 30 years. He was one of many scientists who exposed the flaws in the case for banning it, showing that it was not harmful to man or wildlife. Its use would have been resumed long ago if the politicians had listened to Dr. Donald R. Roberts, a malaria-control expert with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.
Both of these experts spoke at an Accuracy in Media conference in October. Dr. Edwards focused on the lack of evidence that DDT was hazardous to the health of humans or wildlife. Dr. Roberts criticized the World Health Organization for pressuring malaria-infested countries to quit using DDT. He cited Taiwan, where there were over a million cases of malaria before DDT was used and five years later the number was down to less than 600. He said South Africa had similar results until it banned DDT in 1996. The number of malaria cases skyrocketed, and when spraying DDT was resumed, the number of cases fell by 80 percent.
Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, did a great disservice by spreading the myth that DDT was killing off our songbirds. She was not a scientist. Her understanding of the facts was pathetically weak. DDT was not killing off the birds, and banning it resulted in the deaths of millions of men, women and children.
Her book had such an emotional impact that William Ruckelshaus, the EPA administrator in the Nixon administration, completely disregarded the scientific evidence presented in a lengthy hearing and banned DDT for what he acknowledged were political reasons. Our own and many other governments have remained wedded to the myth that DDT is dangerous ever since.
The New York Times has yet to recognize the falsity of that claim, but it is to be commended for recognizing that banning DDT in countries where it was reducing the incidence of malaria was an enormous mistake. It pointed out that the rich countries have been “unconscionably stingy in financing the fight against malaria.” But it is not only the rich countries that are to blame. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and even the World Bank have joined in applying pressure on poor tropical countries to ban the use of DDT even if it saves large numbers of lives. The Times says that until alternatives to DDT are found, we should be helping poor countries “with all available means?including DDT.” That is a giant step forward, one that very few journalists have had the courage to take.