The World Health Organization announced Friday it will once again use the controversial pesticide DDT to fight malaria, the mosquito-born disease that kills an estimated one million African children every year.
The announcement to significantly broaden the use of DDT to prevent malaria came in the form of a plea from the director of the World Health Organization's malaria program, Arata Kochi. "I am here today to ask you: Please, help save African babies as you are helping to save the environment. African babies do not have a powerful movement like the environmental movement to champion their wellbeing. They need your help," he said.
The move to reintroduce DDT reverses a nearly 30-year-old decision not to use the pesticide over fears about its harm to the environment. For years, there has also been heated debate over the impact of DDT on humans, with some scientists arguing it may cause cancer and other diseases.
But Kochi strongly emphasized that DDT will only be used for what is called indoor residual spraying, at a cost of about $5 per home. "We are ... recommending very strongly use of the insecticide, DDT, only inside houses and huts. Not outside. Not for agricultural use," he said.
Indoor spraying means coating the inside walls of mud huts or other dwellings where infected mosquitos lurk to protect sleeping families from getting bitten.
DDT is one of the most controversial pesticides ever created by man. It was banned in the United States in 1972 after decades of widespread agricultural spraying led to environmental damage around the world. Many other countries then also banned DDT.
In 2004, the global treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants made the prohibition of DDT global. But it included a clause allowing its manufacture and use in disease control. It is still used in a handful of countries in Africa and Asia because it is so effective in killing malaria-carrying mosquitos. The only countries that currently produce DDT are India and China.
Richard Tren, the director of the group Africa Fighting Malaria says the environmental impact associated with spraying insecticides indoors is minimal. "You are talking about an entirely different scale of use from use in agriculture. But I should also stress that there are environmentalist groups in Africa that strongly support the use of DDT because they recognize that the threats from malaria and poverty associated with malaria are far worse than if you can use targeted and safe insecticides and spraying. Well, overall that is good for the environment, so groups like 'Endangered Wildlife Trust' in Africa support this," he said.
The WHO says it will use indoor spraying of DDT along with other more traditional anti-malaria tools such as bednets and drugs, which have over the years lost their efficacy due to the emergence of resistant strains of malaria.
The U.S. government is supporting the WHO effort to use indoor spraying of DDT as part of President Bush's $1.2 billion initiative to combat malaria in Africa.
Admiral Timothy Ziemer of the U.S. Agency for International Developement, the coordinator of the president's malaria initiative, also known as PMI, says just over a year ago, President Bush set the goal of reducing malaria deaths by half in 15 nations in about five years time. "Within six weeks of that announcement, the PMI fielded assessment teams that went to Uganda, Angola and Tanzania. And by last Decemeber, PMI launched significant malaria prevention and treament programs in all three countries, benefiting over one million people," he said.
Ziemer says the United States will stand behind the WHO in using DDT, as long as it is used safely and to save human lives.
Reaction from major environmental groups has been muted. The U.S.-based Sierra Club told Reuters news agency that it supported the use of DDT reluctantly, given the scale of deaths attributed to malaria, a preventable disease.
Some smaller U.S.-based groups, like Beyond Pesticides, are firmly against the policy, calling it extremely dangerous.