With the Zika virus declared an international public health emergency a few weeks ago by the World Health Organization, it seems a good time to remind people of another mosquito borne disease with even more horrible effects—malaria.
Over 50 years ago malaria was kicked to the curb and eliminated from the United States. And yet this year malaria will claim almost 500,000 lives worldwide and fifty million over just the last forty years. This is more people than Hitler killed, twice as many as Stalin killed, and approaching as many as Mao killed.
In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama called for the end to malaria’s reign of terror. Some have argued that malaria is a tropical disease greatly exacerbated by global warming. But this contradicts the reality. The facts about malaria are inconvenient truth transcending ideology.
Surely no one would blame outbreaks in Essex marshes during the Little Ice Age, hundreds of years ago, when the River Thames froze over, on global warming. Indeed until fairly recently malaria was much more common around the world.
Ague, as it was known, is common throughout human history. At least three million people a year died of malaria just a century ago. In the early 1920s an epidemic swept the Soviet Union as far north as the Arctic Circle, killing about six hundred thousand people.
The New England Puritan Jonathan Edwards suffered severely from malarial fevers. When New England was first settled, yellow fever and malaria were common diseases, persisting well into the twentieth century. Pioneers to Wisconsin were no strangers to malaria, and in 1878 the New York Times reported malarial outbreaks in Brooklyn and Coney Island, and Central Park was also infested.
Malaria epidemics were once common in Canada; infection rates up to 60 percent and death rates of four percent (4%) were reported among laborers in Ontario.
It is arguable that in the history of the world there has been no greater killer plague than malaria. The numbers are staggering. Today over three billion people somehow find the strength to cope with its debilitating effects. Those people are largely in the impoverished South.
You see, malaria was eliminated in the West and North because of the invention, and use, of the miracle pesticide DDT. DDT could stop Zika, just as it stopped malaria. For that matter, it could also stop mosquito-borne dengue fever in Hawaii, which just declared a state of emergency due to the largest outbreak since the 1940s.
Environmental policy makes that not just unlikely, but impossible.
Soon after the first Earth Day in 1970, as eco-hysteria drove public policy, DDT was banned in the United States. Thanks to the EPA, the most effective tool against disease-ridden mosquitos is still not politically correct, and at just the moment that Zika has zoomed into our attention.
DDT is not without its detriments. But, in the absence of effective and affordable alternatives, when one weighs the costs of the use of DDT versus the benefits of the elimination of disease-ridden mosquitos, it is a small price to pay.
Anyone who has lost a child or parent understands this. In Africa a child dies because of malaria every thirty seconds, and someone is infected every twelve seconds.
In 1970 Joni Mitchell sang, “Hey Farmer Farmer, put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees.”
Poor farmer farmer had no choice choice. In spite of questionable science, the heavy hand of the EPA slammed down, and within a year after Mitchell’s song became a hit, DDT was banned in the United States. No problem for Americans and Canadians—spraying had already eliminated malaria and yellow fever. But a big problem for parts of the world still suffering the scourge.
The American ban reverberated around the world. Africans could actually afford to use DDT, had they been allowed, but the U.S. ban made it virtually impossible. After the U.S. ban, worldwide deaths from malaria skyrocketed.
The groups that had politicized DDT congratulated themselves on the ban, counting it a prodigious victory. But the fact is that organic coffee is arguably more dangerous than equal concentrations of DDT.
Not that anyone wants to feast on DDT, but it can be used in environmentally safe ways.
The point is that risks are frequently blown way out of proportion, and that was certainly the case with DDT. If the EPA followed the same policy across the board, it would long ago have banned coffee, which contains above a thousand chemicals, and more than half of those tested are rodent carcinogens. Still, coffee need not be a guilty pleasure for those of us who believe its benefits outweigh its risks.
And we should not be guilty of denying Zika or malaria mosquitos the pleasure of making the acquaintance of our friend DDT. Joni Mitchell could have had "the birds and the bees" without condemning fifty million humans beings to die from malaria. We need to get serious again about mosquito control before things get out of control.
James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC. He is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed physics articles, has held the NSF CAREER award, and does research in space science and nonlinear dynamical systems under grants from NASA and NSF.