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Opinion: How DDT could stop the spread of malaria

Spraying safe amounts of pesticides, like DDT, is the best way to control the deadly malaria parasite.

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A sign at the "Malaria No More Presents: Hollywood Bites Back!" after party held at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, Calif. (Jason Merritt/AFP/Getty Images)

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Although for decades we have had the scientific knowledge and tools to control malaria, the disease continues to kill millions and inflict misery on families and communities as today we mark World Malaria Day.

This is also first day of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which regulates the use of DDT, one of the best weapons we have against malaria.

While many are pushing for an elimination of DDT, there is unequivocal evidence that this insecticide is a safe and affordable tool to prevent and control malaria. Public health professionals will one day look back and be more than dismayed that we did not do enough to make optimal use of available tools, such as DDT, to stop the horrendous scale of death and illness caused by malaria.

In my own country, Guyana, in the 1940s and 1950s, more than one-third of the patients in our hospitals and almost 20 percent of all deaths were due to malaria. The renowned malaria scientist, George Giglioli, used DDT to stop malaria on the coast of Guyana, where almost 90 percent of the population lives. Now, 60 years later, malaria has not returned to the coast. But malaria continues to rage in the hinterland of Guyana and is likely to do so for many decades. That is unless the present move to eliminate DDT is terminated.

In this regard, a particularly intriguing recent paper published in Research and Reports in Tropical Medicine, describes claims made by anti-insecticide groups regarding a malaria control program in Mexico and seven countries of Central America. The paper confirms what I and other public health professionals have known for some time: that stopping the use of insecticides and relying on what are seen as “environmentally sound” methods to control malaria is rarely an acceptable tradeoff for such a dangerous disease.

According to the paper, impressive results were achieved by distributing large numbers of anti-malaria pills to bring malaria rates down. While these successes against malaria are a cause for celebration, the paper also questioned environmentalist’s claims that attributed the success not to medicine distribution, but to use of “environmentally sound” methods of control, such as planting certain mosquito-repelling trees around houses and using fish to eat mosquito larvae.

When Guyana used DDT, we collected meticulous data showing no public health harm from its use and great public health benefits. Yet political and financial pressures plagued and eventually ended Guayana’s malaria eradication program. For us, the opposition to DDT is a case of deja-vu and we are well aware of the formidable power of the movement against use of DDT in malaria programs.

Some United Nations organizations, such as the U.N. Environment Program and Stockholm Convention Secretariat, are ratcheting up international pressure for global DDT elimination by 2020. They are doing this even though those UN agencies tasked with malaria control value DDT highly. Existing international regulations already frustrate our attempts to use DDT, as illustrated by prohibitions on DDT transport.