TCS Daily

DDT Saves Lives

By Roger Bate - February 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is reliant on aid and desperate to attract foreign investment - a forlorn hope since 17 years of war and periodic flooding have left the country with a terrible infrastructure.

Recent floods have also brought a new peril: Malarial mosquitoes are breeding out of control in the dissipated floodwaters, spreading this potentially fatal disease to tens of thousands. It is tacitly assumed by the world's media that malaria was the inevitable result of flooding and that the gallant and under-funded Mozambican government is doing all it can to alleviate the problem. But the truth is that certain officials are blocking the use of the chemical -- the pesticide DDT -- that can best help prevent the spread of this deadly killer disease. They are blocking it for several reasons, but chiefly out of an absurd sense of pride and possibly personal financial gain, which is a shame.

Malaria kills many thousands of children a year in Mozambique. Official figures claim 1,200 deaths from 100,000 cases in 2001, but this is a serious under-statement. In 2000, there were over 100,000 cases in the Kwa Zulu Natal Province (KZN) of South Africa, (the mosquito species responsible had not been seen in South Africa for decades and arrived from the highly malarious Mozambique) Malaria levels in KZN are lower than that in Mozambique, and Mozambique is far more populous than KZN, so Mozambique's number of cases is likely to be well over one million. Chronic under-reporting is routine, as is the desire to keep the malaria story from potential investors.

There is no doubt that the Mozambican floods of 2000 caused a surge in malaria, but rates were already far higher than they should have been. Sensible malarious countries around the world continue to use DDT to prevent malaria transmission, by spraying the inside of buildings where people work and sleep. DDT is the most effective mosquito repellent pesticide and easily the cheapest, so for poor nations its use makes perfect sense.

The richest country in Africa, South Africa, stopped using DDT in 1996 under pressure from green groups, but started spraying again in 2000 once malaria rates had climbed. After DDT was reintroduced, the number of malaria cases and deaths were reduced by a remarkable 80%. South African officials encouraged Mozambique to do the same but there has been no change in policy.

Rumors have circulated within the South African business community that Mozambican officials have received pay-offs from western chemical companies producing alternatives to DDT. Although there is no evidence for such pay-offs, rumours persist because the realities of not using DDT are so devastating to the population. The more bizarre reason for the policy stance is that officials, such as health minister, Francisco Songane and head of spraying programs, Avertino Barreto, suggest that DDT should not be used because it will be "phased out of production soon," and that "Northern countries don't use it so it must be bad."

DDT production does not need to be phased out; indeed, India and China still produce substantial amounts. The environmentalist demand for a global phase out is misguided. Fortunately, it was realised as such by environment ministers, since an exemption was given to DDT production and use in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.

It is worth analysing the second explanation given by Songane and Baretto since it illustrates the broader problems of poor countries. It is true that Northern countries don't use DDT, and most haven't for over 20 years - the U.S. stopped using it in 1972. But these countries have been free of endemic malaria (or other airborne parasitic diseases) for over 40 years - largely due to an enormous eradication program that used DDT as its weapon of choice.

Furthermore, these countries can afford a wide variety of alternative solutions to their problems. For instance, non-persistent pesticides best deal with nuisance mosquitoes and agricultural pests, since spraying occurs outside where persistence may lead to harmful environmental effects. But for the poor of Africa, indoor spraying with cheap and persistent pesticides makes perfect sense. This is because funds are limited for repeat spraying and environmental harms are unlikely and spraying is of vital importance to repel invading malarial mosquitoes. So the analogy provided by Minister Songane, and on down through the official ranks, makes no sense.

However, on another level it is eminently understandable. Songane is a highly educated, literate and articulate man. He is in many ways a developed country person - having far more in common with American intellectuals than Mozambican peasants. And if the men at U.S. Agency for International Development say that he shouldn't use DDT (as they did in Bolivia) he is loathe to disappoint his friends in the global bureaucratic elite. These friendships can often spawn opinions - known in the anthropology literature as "status markers" - that are hard to object to, even when they are so obviously wrong, as in the DDT case. The reality is that were it not for the medical men who are not part of this elite -- especially from South Africa, Zambia, and even at Harvard University -- there would be a global ban on DDT, and it wouldn't just be Mozambique where disaster was striking.

It's time pressure was put on the health officials of Mozambique to use what is most effective to combat disease. If western chemical companies have been bribing these officials then one hopes the malaria victims' families sue them in an international court. But, whatever the reality of this allegation, the health officials themselves are culpable for the many excess deaths from malaria in Mozambique occurring today. The long-term effect will be depressed economic activity since few foreign investors will be tempted to provide tourist facilities or steel mills in a country where such a nasty disease is endemic.

Roger Bate is Director of the International Policy Network.

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