"the reality is that if you try to get rid of DDT without guaranteeing that money will be available for alternatives, you will kill people."
- Amir Attaran

SIRC – Media Watch 17-09-99

Technology and third world need

A recent article by Dennis Avery, published on the web site of the Hudson Institute, details some of the research into vitamin enriched genetically modified rice and suggests that this new hybrid may be able to alleviate vitamin deficiency in a large proportion of the developing world's 400 million 'poor' rice consumers. The accusation that the interests of environmentalists may actually be diametrically opposed to the needs of the developing world is not new, but it has re-emerged this month in a different non-GM context. 371 leading experts in malaria, comprising of doctors, scientists and health economists have signed an open letter of protest against plans for a global ban on DDT. Led by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, environmental groups are lobbying for the global embargo of DDT by 2007 a goal that experts say would have profound consequences on the health of millions. DDT at present is the cheapest and most effective method of controlling the malarial mosquito and for environmentalists to advocate its ban when, as yet, there is no viable practical or economic alternative was seen by many as being utterly irresponsible. [see 100 things you should know about DDT – Junkscience]

DDT has been the target of journalists, environmentalists and public officials since the New Yorker serialised Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962. The "evil spell" of chemical pesticides that were detailed in the piece was backed up with little scientific evidence but was narrated with a successful sense of the dramatic. John Tierney, writing in the New York Times noted that the majority of the original anti DDT lobby actually resided in "New York and other malaria-free environments along the East Coast." Thus the seeds of paternalism were sown.

As Sarah Boseley comments in the Guardian: "What will happen is clear, say the doctors. Under pressure from the west, which has no malaria, and amid worries about damage to human health from DDT, some developing nations have stopped or cut down on its use. Their sickness and death toll from malaria has risen." The Worldwide Fund for Nature insists that an agreement on the proposed ban would not put lives at risk. Clifton Curtis, director of its global toxic chemicals initiative, justifies their stance on the basis that: "We set an end-date as a motivational target. In our view, if you don't set a target you don't get decision-makers to focus on putting the money into the alternatives that are needed." Amir Attaran, director of the Malaria Project in Washington and one of the organisers of the open letter eloquently addressed the problem of enforcing legislation on the basis of perceived risk. "While it is true that we don't know every last risk of using DDT, we know very well what the risk of malaria is – and on balance malaria is far, far more deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT. We are not in love with DDT. But the reality is that if you try to get rid of DDT without guaranteeing that money will be available for alternatives, you will kill people."

Research published in the BMJ also highlighted an adverse response to western involvement in third world environmental policies. The objective of the study was to assess the effects of dam and irrigation projects on the incidences of malaria in the surrounding communities. Centred on the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia, it identified a sevenfold increase in cases of malaria in settlements neighbouring newly developed water storage sites. Echoing the findings of a similar study in Sri Lanka, these recent results identified the need to address health factors in project planning. "There is a need for attention to be given to health issues in the implementation of ecological and environmental development programmes, specifically for appropriate malaria control measures to counteract the increased risks near these dams." While water supply is essential to agriculture and human life – the severe famine experienced in the region in 1974 and 1984 was a result of droughts – the haste with which these schemes have been implemented may have serious consequences. Any increase in malaria "probably the major threat to health and life in Africa" is obviously a problem and with many more dam projects scheduled for the Tigray region the authors advise caution.

As western powers were busy debating what form pest control should take in other parts of the world and making decisions affecting the fate of billions, the US had to contend with a lethal infestation of its own. On 10 September, after the deaths of three people, the whole of New York City was sprayed with insecticide in an attempt to control the spread of mosquito-transmitted St Louis encephalitis. The chemical malathion [and obviously not DDT] was administered to all five boroughs of the American capital via a fleet of tankers and helicopters and was said to pose no risk to human health. Roger Nasci, a Centre for Disease Control official, stated at a September 13 City Hall news conference: 'this is a very safe chemical with a very good track record." Some remained unconvinced and suggested that concentrated spraying may also lead to future generations of mosquitoes being increasingly insecticide-tolerant. Bruce Ames, a toxicologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Centre, Berkeley had this to say on the subject of malathion and DDT: "New Yorkers would do better to concentrate on not getting hit by a taxicab, and people overseas ought to worry about mosquitoes with malaria."

On this side of the Atlantic, ministers ordered an investigation into the possibility that malaria and other tropical diseases might spread to Britain as a result of climate change due to global warming. Three United Nations agencies- the World Health Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme – have suggested that a plethora of tropical diseases are set to invade our shores and that they will be significantly more lethal being introduced into a population that has no in-bred immunity. The results of their study are due to be presented to Frank Dobson next year. We can only hope that this will promote a more sensible debate on issues of the environment, safety and affordability and may instigate a little more empathy when discussing the practical needs of the third world.