Facts on DDT and malaria

Last week, in response to more repetition of the false claim that
environmentalists had killed many millions of people with a ban of DDT.
John Quiggin set out the facts of the matter:

DDT has never been banned in antimalarial use. The main reason for
declining use of DDT as an antimalarial has been the development of
resistance. Antimalarial uses have received specific exemptions from
proposals to phase out DDT, until alternatives are developed. Bans on
the use of DDT as an agricultural insecticide, promoted by Rachel
Carson and others, have helped to slow the development of resistance,
and therefore increased the effectiveness of DDT in antimalarial use
(links on this
here
).

Attempts to get some of those responsible for spreading the false
claims about environmentalists and DDT to correct them have proved
largely unsuccessful.

Rafe Champion did not make
even a token correction.

Two weeks after posting an obviously
fabricated
quote Tim Blair
finally made a stealth correction, adding an update after the post had
fallen off his front page by about five pages. No apology or
correction for posting the outrageously false claim that “In a single
crime [the greens] have killed about 50 million people.”

Miranda Devine failed to correct her false claim that DDT had been
banned
or her false claim that
environmentalists had killed 50 million people. The only correction
she offered was this:

Last week I inadvertently misquoted Rachel Carson by repeating a mistake from The Age of January 29. In an article by Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute, Carson was quoted: “We should seek not to eliminate malarial mosquitoes with pesticides, but to find instead a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.”

But in Lockitch’s original, published in FrontPage Magazine, the quote was part paraphrase: “We should seek, Carson wrote, not to eliminate malarial mosquitoes with pesticides, but to find instead, ‘a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves’.” Apologies.

There are a couple of problems with Devine’s correction. First, if you
search the Age‘s
archive,
you’ll find that no article by Lockitch was published in the
Age or any other Fairfax paper on January 29 or any other
date. Nor has the quote appeared in any article in any Fairfax paper
other than Devine’s. Just to be sure, I checked the microfilm version
of January 29′s Age. No article on DDT by Lockitch or
anyone else. It is wrong for Devine to blame the Age for
her mistake. [Update: John Quiggin tracks down the source of the fake quote: it was in the
tabloid Herald-Sun on Jan 13.]

Second, Lockitch has not paraphrased Carson at all. Here is the
complete paragraph that the quote was drawn from:

Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life — with living populations and all their pressures and counter pressures, their surges and recessions. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves

Carson does not mention malarial mosquitoes at all in that paragraph
and by no stretch of the imagination can it be interpreted to mean
that we should learn to live with malaria. Here’s what Carson actually wrote about malarial mosquitoes in an earlier chapter (my emphasis):

Although insect resistance is a matter of concern in agriculture
and forestry, it is in the field of public health that the most
serious apprehensions have been felt. The relation between
various insects and many diseases of man is an ancient one
Mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles may inject into the human
bloodstream the single-celled organism of malaria. …

These are important problems and must be met. No responsible person
contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored
. The question
that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or
responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making
it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against
disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has
heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the
short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that
the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even
worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.

A distinguished Canadian entomologist, Dr A. W. A. Brown, was engaged
by the World Health Organization to make a comprehensive survey of the
resistance problem. In the resulting monograph, published in 1958, Dr
Brown has this to say: Barely a decade after the introduction of the
potent synthetic insecticides in public health programmes, the main
technical problem is the development of resistance to them by the
insects they formerly controlled. In publishing his monograph, the
World Health Organization warned that the vigorous offensive now being
pursued against arthropod-borne diseases such as malaria, typhus
fever, and plague risks a serious setback unless this new problem can
be rapidly mastered.

What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant
species now includes practically all of the insect groups of
medical importance. … Malaria programmes are threatened
by resistance among mosquitoes. …

Probably the first medical use of modem insecticides occurred in Italy
in 1943 when the Allied Military Government launched a successful
attack on typhus by dusting enormous numbers of people with DDT. This
was followed two years later by extensive application of residual
sprays for the control of malaria mosquitoes. Only a year later the
first signs of trouble appeared. Both houseflies and mosquitoes of
the genus Culex began to show resistance to the sprays. In 1948 a new
chemical, chlordane, was tried as a supplement to DDT. This time good
control was obtained for two years, but by August of 1950
chlordane-resistant flies appeared, and by the end of that year all of
the houseflies as well as the Culex mosquitoes seemed to be resistant
to chlordane. As rapidly as new chemicals were brought into use,
resistance developed. …

The first malaria mosquito to develop resistance to DDT was
Anopheles sacharovi in Greece. Extensive spraying was begun in
1946 with early success, by 1949, however, observers noticed
that adult mosquitoes were resting in large numbers under road
bridges, although they were absent from houses and stables that
had been treated. Soon this habit of outside resting was extended
to caves, outbuildings, and culverts and to the foliage and trunks
of orange trees. Apparently the adult mosquitoes had become
sufficiently tolerant of DDT to escape from sprayed buildings
and rest and recover in the open. A few months later they were
able to remain in houses, where they were found resting on
treated walls.

This was a portent of the extremely serious situation that has
now developed. Resistance to insecticides by mosquitoes of the
anopheline group has surged upwards at an astounding rate,
being created by the thoroughness of the very house-spraying
programmes designed to eliminate malaria. In 1956, only 5
species of these mosquitoes displayed resistance; by early 1960
the number had risen from 5 to 28! The number includes very
dangerous malaria vectors in West Africa, the Middle East,
Central America, Indonesia, and the eastern European region. …

The consequences of resistance in terms of malaria and other
diseases are indicated by reports from many parts of the world.
An outbreak of yellow fever in Trinidad in 1954 followed failure
to control the vector mosquito because of resistance. There has
been a flare-up of malaria in Indonesia and Iran. …

Some malaria mosquitoes have a habit that so reduces their exposure to
DDT as to make them virtually immune. Irritated by the spray, they
leave the huts and survive outside. …

It is more sensible in some cases to take a small amount of damage in
preference to having none for a time but paying for it in the long run
by losing the very means of fighting [is the advice given in Holland by
Dr Briejer in his capacity as director of the Plant Protection Service].
Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather
than Spray to the limit of your capacity’…, Pressure on the pest
population should always be as slight as possible.

Dr Briejer says:

It is more than clear that we are travelling a dangerous road. We
are going to have to do some very energetic research on other control
measures, measures that will have to be biological, not chemical. Our aim
should be to guide natural processes as cautiously as possible in the desired
direction rather than to use brute force….

It’s clear from this that our current policy of reserving DDT for
public health use is the sort of DDT use that Carson would have
approved. But don’t expect the Miranda Devines of this world to ever
admit that.

Comments

  1. #1 Porlock Junior
    June 28, 2005

    Rachel Carson stands exposed as another of those goddam liberal appeasers who think we should UNDERSTAND the enemy before, or even instead of, nuking them. Christ they make me sick how long before we can hang them all I say!!!

    Mean while, thanks for the data and the quote. This malaria libel will need a lot of patient refutation, it’s clear.

  2. #2 frankis
    June 28, 2005

    Excellent fact-checking Tim.

    Miranda’s truth-challenged efforts prompt the thought that popular columnists peddling an ideological line of politely worded hatred against their sworn enemies (typically the greens and the educated) are just following the lead set by their heroes George Bush and Johnny Howard.

    The writers too want a piece of the “creating our own reality” game and they’ve been getting away with it, just as they’ve seen Bush and Howard not punished by the electorate but actually rewarded for their ineptitude and mendacity. It works because the writers are smarter than their readers, and that’s all they need to be. Bush and Howard may not be too bright, but they were smart enough themselves to scramble over the necessary bodies to reach the top in a democracy; and they’re certainly brighter than those who vote for them. It works for their opinion writers too.

    Inciting the mob is a living for some writers – a living they’d find harder to earn were they to lift their standards any further above the heads of their readership. So they’re doing no more than they’re encouraged to do by the boneheads who read them uncritically. In short the mob doesn’t deserve objective reality or honesty either from its leaders or from its favoured confabulators among the pundits.

    Disclosure: this has been an elitist analysis which should best be simply ignored by the democratic majority of “battlers” for Bush, Howard and Miranda. No worries, let ‘em read Paddy or Piers.

  3. #3 Tim
    June 28, 2005

    Interesting turn of phrase that, Tim: “stealth correction.” Interesting.

  4. #4 jet
    June 28, 2005

    Yeah, if the US/EU/WHO/Environmental backlash against DDT didn’t cause millions of deaths then this article must be pure fiction. To this day, pressure is being put on countries to stop any DDT usage, and countries that want to use DDT in outdoor spraying face major sanctions.

    You can yell “resistance to DDT” all you want, but the fact remains that countries today that go back to the 1950/60′s style of spraying outdoors are reducing their malaria rates by magnitudes faster than other methods.

    And we will never know if continued massive DDT usage would have killed off malaria faster than resistance would have built up.

  5. #5 z of the iantysonites
    June 28, 2005

    Uh, as a general proponent of Wikipedia, the reference to the article is kind of difficult for me; those with nothing better to do may want to check the history of the page and observe the militant policing of the concept of the “DDT ban” from all observations that there was no such ban, and that therefore any calculations of deaths due to the ban are basically a flag of enormous bias.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure we do know if continued massive DDT usage on insects infesting cotton plantations, which was banned, “would have killed off malaria faster than resistance would have built up” in mosquitos. Pretty sure it wouldn’t.

  6. #6 Ian Gould
    June 28, 2005

    Jet: You can yell “resistance to DDT” all you want, but the fact remains that countries today that go back to the 1950/60′s style of spraying outdoors are reducing their malaria rates by magnitudes faster than other methods.

    Jet, please provide the names of the countries which have done this together with the rates of malaria before and after the adoption of outdoor spraying.

    Then explain how they did so if there’s a “ban”?

  7. #7 Ian Gould
    June 28, 2005

    Since people appear to have problem with this concept, here’s the primary definition of the word “ban” from dictionary.com:

    “To prohibit, especially by official decree.”

    Not to restrict, not to regulate, not to discourage – to prohibit.

  8. #8 J F Beck
    June 29, 2005

    One of the meanings of ban according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

    “Practical denunciation, prohibition, or outlawry, not formally pronounced, as that of society or public opinion.”

    That clears that up, doesn’t it? Or, are we only allowed to use primary definitions?

  9. #9 jet
    June 30, 2005

    How does one nation enforce a ban on another nation? Does it invade, call the UN, tell its mommy? Or does it cut foreign aid to that country and impose economic sanctions. Read the frigg’n wikipedia article and you’ll see that countries that want to spray DDT faced a very similar ban that Iraq faced on buying military weapons.

    Ian Gould, it is obvious you didn’t read the article or you wouldn’t be asking me to name countries.

    z of the iantysonites,
    You can’t deny for ~30 years there has been strong international pressure to stop DDT use, and this pressure has included foreign aid cuts, economic sanctions, and NGO enforcement. This absolutely falls under “Practical denunciation, prohibition, or outlawry, not formally pronounced, as that of society or public opinion.” (thanks J F beck).

  10. #10 Tim Lambert
    June 30, 2005

    jet, the Wikipedia article is mostly a rehash of Africa Fighting Malaria stuff and is not at all accurate. Yes, there has been international pressure to cut back on DDT use, but there have not been economic sanctions or cuts to foreign aid.

    Some aid agencies have declined to fund DDT use when it would have been the most cost-effective solution. This cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a “ban”. If I don’t buy you a car, you cannot claim that I have banned you from driving.

    It is just ridiculous to claim DDT is banned when it still used 9in countries containing billions of people.

  11. #11 saurabh
    June 30, 2005

    Regarding the Wikipedia DDT page, of which I am one of the more frequent editors: I’ve had a long, hard fight trying to keep it from filling up with right-wing claptrap, with little success. However, I will note that there HAVE been efforts on the behalf of numerous environmental organizations (significantly the WWF) to ban DDT, and that these would likely have disease-control implications. See the comment in Nature, issue 432 p. 439 by Allan Schapira of the WHO; the latter has continued to stress the importance of DDT in malarial control, and it was for this reason alone that DDT narrowly escaped a total ban under the Stockholm Convention on POPs.

  12. #12 Ian Gould
    June 30, 2005

    Ian Gould, it is obvious you didn’t read the article or you wouldn’t be asking me to name countries.

    Jet, it is obvious you didn’t understand the question.

    “Swaziland, Mozambique and Ecuador are other examples of countries that have very successfully reduced malaria incidence with DDT.”

    Doesn’t support your claim that:
    a. they reverted to out-door spraying and
    b. that this resulted in a “orders of magnitude” greater reduction in deaths than other control methods.

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