WORLD MALARIA DAY--and Its Implications for West Nile Virus

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Today is being commemorated around the globe as "World Malaria Day." Note, I didn't say "celebrated" -- clearly an inappropriate descriptor for a disease which, despite the availability of effective preventive measures, continues to kill over one-million impoverished people (mostly young children) annually. The toll of those sickened, both from health and economic perspectives, is incalculable but enormous.

Despite these grim statistics (and I hate to refer to such tragic outcomes as "statistics"), many people continue to harbor ill-feelings towards the best therapeutic weapon we have to reduce this frightful toll: DDT, the most beneficial chemical known to mankind. When it was widely used in the post-World War II era in the western world, it eradicated malaria from Europe and North America (it comes as a surprise to many to learn that epidemic and endemic malaria were still problems in those areas as late as the 1940s). Then came the anti-chemical book Silent Spring and, while the "environmental" movement was born, a death sentence was meted out to swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Thanks to Rachel Carson's ode to a non-existent natural wonderland allegedly devastated by toxic pesticides, DDT became the target of the anti-chemical lobby, and its use was virtually abandoned -- though late enough to spare the wealthy West from typhus and malaria. Left behind were the poor of sub-Saharan Africa and other tropical regions, and millions have paid the price for chemophobic ideologues who are themselves at no risk.

Some say that the tide has turned -- now the UN and its WHO have given the seal of approval for countries at risk of malaria to use DDT to control the vector anopheles mosquito. But suspicion of the chemical remains, and many countries still decline to use it out of fear of having their exports deemed unfit by the fearful Europeans.

Just look at our own "advanced" country and its bizarre relationship with pesticides: in 1999, the West Nile virus had just been discovered in a few discarded tires and birdbaths in the New York area. But when the City, under Mayor Giuliani, tried to aggressively eradicate the bugs, resistance cropped up -- not to the pesticide, but from "consumer advocacy" groups like PIRG. The spraying was severely restricted. Guess what? West Nile Virus is now endemic throughout the continental United States, and hundreds have died, needlessly.

And today's New York Times reports that in California -- the heart of anti-chemical hysteria -- a perfectly safe, pheromone-altering compound is also under attack, despite the fact that the insect it is designed to fight threatens the breadbasket of California agriculture, the central valley. I hope the activists don't regret the consequences of their actions. But then, these people never seem to regret anything they do -- they seem to believe they are always right, no matter what. I have never heard anyone from Greenpeace or NRDC take responsibility the error of their anti-DDT campaigns, despite the ensuing carnage.

Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it -- and obviously, the anti-pesticide groups who got DDT banned in 1972 have not read their history. Let's hope we are not doomed to continue paying for their ignorance.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (,