TCS Daily

WHO's to Blame?

By Roger Bate - October 14, 2003 12:00 AM

A group of medics recently warned that about 160,000 people die every year from the side-effects of global warming ranging from malaria to heatstroke, and the numbers will probably double by 2020. The experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) presented the study at a major climate conference in Moscow. The lead author, Professor Andrew Haines of the LSHTM, said that climate change was causing more child malarial deaths in developing nations. Furthermore, the changing climate doubtless caused the heat wave that brought 15,000 excess deaths to France this past summer.


Climatologists know that it's impossible to link global climate to local weather events, but even if they could one hot summer does not make a trend, so linking the French deaths with climate change is either ignorance or shameless misrepresentation. Regardless, supporters of anti-energy policies believe that the French heat wave offers more proof that man's greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming. Respected newspapers such as the Washington Post reported the climate-death-link findings of the report without questioning the numbers. And later on when commentators call for slashing energy use, the 160,000 excess death figure will be trotted out to explain the importance and urgency of action.


Ironically, the French health authority blamed the country's lack of technological adaptation, specifically pointing out they don't have enough air conditioning. There is little doubt that if France had burned more coal and catalysed more non-greenhouse nuclear power to run air conditioners, fewer of her unfortunate elderly would have died this summer.


While shocking and sad, the excess French deaths are a result of freak weather. Many of the deaths were preventable by a technical fix. Malaria, by contrast, is endemic in parts of the developing world and kills about 2 million (mostly children in Africa) every year. Are these victims of western excess? Partly yes, but it's an excess of western green policy, rather than of energy use that's to blame.


Malaria Basics


The anopheles mosquito, which carries the malaria parasite, likes warm and wet climate but can stand a wide range of temperatures. Oliver Cromwell died from malaria in a chilly September in the marshlands of East Anglia, England, and less than 80 years ago there was a massive malaria epidemic in Archangel, located within the Russian Arctic Circle.


A key condition for a malaria outbreak is a sufficient pool of parasite-infected humans and animals that allows the malaria parasite to perpetuate its lifecycle. Taking steps to break the lifecycle and treat infections has succeeded in eradicated malaria from the industrialized world; the mosquitoes are still around but any outbreak can be swiftly controlled with modern sprays and drugs.


Insecticides (mostly the now-reviled DDT) and land drainage were the main tools used in a massive post-World War II campaign that drove malaria from Europe and the southern US. Malaria persists in the tropics due to poverty, not climate. Sadly, many countries of sub-Saharan Africa are too poor to afford any health budget. What they do have -- which may be as little as a dollar a person a day -- comes almost entirely from overseas aid. Despite its proven effectiveness, DDT has been banned in the west on environmental grounds and all insecticides are frowned upon because of unwarranted concerns that pesticides harm human health, and limited real worries about their impacts on the environment.  As such, it's difficult to use them in tropical regions.


Therefore, the main thrust of the WHO's "Roll Back Malaria" campaign is the use of bednets, which has a far lower success rate than DDT usage. Only countries rich enough to support their own insecticidal spraying -- such as India, South Africa, Ecuador, parts of Zambia -- are managing to control malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. They stand in stark contrast with those countries which are limited to using bednets.


And it's not just the poor that are affected by the reemergence of mosquito-borne diseases. The incidence of malaria among US Marines recently returning from Liberia, despite their being protected by prophylactic drugs (which can only be tolerated for limited periods), and being provided with bednets, was over 25 per cent -- an appallingly high rate of attrition for an elite force.


Already Deadly


Blaming global climate change for health problems, particularly in the developing world, is a convenient smokescreen for the miserable results of the WHO strategy. Ever since Mexico reduced its use of insecticides -- at the WHO's behest -- cases of ages-old endemic mosquito-borne diseases are reappearing in the US. A study out this month from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found a pocket of endemic malaria in Palm Beach, Florida. Palm Beach hasn't suddenly become the Brazilian jungle; the malaria danger is not a question of climate, but of green anti-insecticide policies.


How many Americans have to die of West Nile Fever and other mosquito-borne diseases before pressure is applied to US agencies and the WHO to change its policies? Climate change may yet prove a danger but policies prompted by green zealots are already deadly.


Dr Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a Director of health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria

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