WHO Urges Use of DDT in Africa

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

The World Health Organization reversed a 30-year-old policy yesterday and declared its support for indoor use of the pesticide DDT to control mosquitoes in regions where malaria is a major health problem.

The Geneva-based WHO, which provides advice to many developing countries, believes the benefits of the long-acting pesticide far outweigh any health or environmental risk it may pose.

"Indoor residual spraying with DDT and other insecticides will again play a major role in [WHO's] efforts to fight the disease." Arata Kochi, director of the organization's malaria department, said at a news conference in Washington. "WHO will use every possible and safe method to control malaria."

The endorsement is only for once- or twice-yearly spraying of the pesticide on the inside walls of dwellings, especially mud and thatched huts. Used that way, DDT functions as both an insect repellent and -- when a blood-engorged female mosquito lands on the wall to digest its meal -- an insecticide.

One application costs about $5. Most of that cost is labor, as it is sprayed on by professional applicators, and each packet of the pesticide must be strictly accounted for.

About 1 million people die each year of malaria, most of them African children under age 5.

WHO expects opposition to the policy change from some environmental groups. Kochi appealed directly to them in his announcement.

"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 . . . to champion their well-being," he said.

The most famous pesticide in the world, DDT has few if any adverse effects in human beings. Its chief hazard is that it persists in the environment for years. Widespread agricultural use of DDT in the 1950s and 1960s caused the thinning of bird eggshells and the steep decline in the population of some species.

Its utility in malaria control, however, is undisputed. DDT spraying helped eradicate or greatly reduce malaria in North America, southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the decades after World War II. It continues to be used indoors in a few countries.

Environmental groups had a mixed reaction yesterday.

"Given the severity of the malaria epidemic now in Africa and parts of Asia, it is reasonable to be using limited amounts of DDT for indoor use," said John M. Balbus, a physician who heads the health program at Environmental Defense. He said DDT "is not the single answer, but it can be part of the solution until we find a better alternative."

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