Controversial Chemical Fighting Malaria

Sept. 15, 2006 — -- The controversial chemical , DDT, long out of favor and out of use, is being touted once again as a valuable tool in the battle to beat back the deadly, intractable disease of malaria.

Despite its elimination in much of the world, malaria continues to be one of the leading causes of death, especially among children in Africa, who make up some 75 percent of the nearly 2.7 million malaria deaths each year.

Malaria, a disease of the blood, is transmitted to people from infected mosquitoes. Eliminating the mosquito population is an essential step toward eliminating the spread of the disease and reducing its mortality rate.

Nearly 30 years after phasing out indoor spraying and use of the controversial insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) to control malaria, the World Health Organization announced today that this type of intervention would once again play a major role in fighting the disease in malaria-ridden areas of the world.

Spraying DDT indoors was stopped, because of fears that the chemical produced other health problems even while it eliminated malaria. But now scientists believe those concerns are unfounded.

"IRS [indoor residual spraying] has proved to be just as cost effective as other malaria prevention measures, and DDT presents no health risk when used properly," said Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for the division of HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria.

The news is encouraging for Fiona Kobusingye, who heads the Uganda Fighting Malaria initiative through the Congress of Racial Equality..

Malaria infected multiple members of her family in Uganda. Just last year, malaria left her brother brain damaged. The disease also took the life of her 3-year-old son.

"As I speak now, I have no son with my name," said Kobusingye. "It's really sad. Three hundred and thirty people die in Uganda every day from malaria."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 350 million to 500 million people become infected with malaria every year around the globe.

Malaria can be prevented and cured. Bed nets, other insecticides besides DDT, and anti-malarial drugs have all been used in the battle against the disease.

WHO started concentrating on these other means of prevention in the early 1980s because of increased environmental and health concerns about DDT.

Many point to American biologist Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," published in 1962, as the catalyst for the movement. Many countries banned DDT from agricultural use, starting with the United States in 1972.

What's more, the findings of a 2001 study lead by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences "strongly suggest that DDT use increases preterm births, which is a major contributor to infant mortality."

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, recommends strategies aimed at preventing mosquito breeding sites by other than chemical means. He says the international community should reject the use of DDT.

"We should be advocating for a just world where we no longer treat poverty and development with poisonous Band-Aids but join together to address the root causes of insect-borne disease, because the chemical-dependent alternatives are ultimately deadly for everyone."