Opinion

Not so pro-Bono

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Henry Miller
Fellow, Hoover Institution
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      Henry Miller

      Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times about the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by rock singer Bono (yes, you read that right) was naive and misguided.  The minimal successes at improving the health and wealth of the poor he cited have been vastly overshadowed by negative policies and actions by UN agencies.

Underlying the U.N.’s deficiencies is the inability of its leaders to apprehend how their own flawed policies prevent the achievement of their ambitious Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which include cutting hunger and poverty in half, giving all children a basic education, reducing infant and maternal mortality by two-thirds and three-quarters respectively, and reversing the spread of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  Chemicals regulation and water policy offer just two examples, among many.

Since the cheap and effective insecticide DDT was effectively banned worldwide at the UN-sponsored 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise.  In fact, the huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitoes caused some public health officials to rethink DDT’s use.  In 2006, after some 50 million preventable deaths, the U.N.’s World Health Organization reversed course and endorsed the use of DDT to kill and repel malaria-causing mosquitoes.  At the time, Arata Kochi, the World Health Organization official in charge of malaria said, “We must take a position based on the science and the data.  One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual spraying.  Of the dozen or so insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT.”

But policies based on science and data enjoy a short half-life at the United Nations, and last year, with a notable absence of fanfare, WHO reverted to endorsing less effective methods for preventing malaria.  In May 2009 the WHO and the UN Environment Program announced that their goal is “to achieve a 30 percent cut in the application of DDT worldwide by 2014 and its total phase-out by the early 2020s, if not sooner.”

As incompetent and anti-social as the UN has been on DDT, it is really drowning when it comes to water issues.  Water is in increasingly limited supply in many parts of the world.  Shortages make irrigation of crops difficult or impossible and hinder economic development; excessive water extraction lowers ground levels and exacerbates rising sea levels; and poor water quality makes populations vulnerable to water-related diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, viral hepatitis A and typhoid.  Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to an adequate supply of drinking water and some 2.6 billion do not have basic sanitation.

Ironically, UN policies and programs themselves prevent the development and use of important tools that could help to conserve water, especially in poorer regions of the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ed-Darrell/792424971 Ed Darrell

    1. Uganda has had a tough time convincing its tobacco and cotton corporate interests that malaria is a problem. There is no group of genuine environmentalists opposed to using DDT in Uganda — and in fact, DDT has been in use there in the past couple of years. There is a problem with the fact that DDT is not so effective as it was touted to be, partly because it’s so difficult to get 80% coverage of homes in affected areas. The political and legal opposition to use of DDT is no inherent barrier — Mr. Tren could pick up the phone and call his friends and funders in the tobacco industry and ask them to drop their claims.

    2. There is no shortage of DDT in Africa; there is plenty available in the world, cheap, to any nation who wishes to use it. Neither WHO nor any other authority may tell African and Asian nations they cannot use DDT. There is no legal authority to deny DDT use.

    3. Regardless Mr. Tren’s unsubstantiated claims, the number of malaria deaths and incidence of malaria have declined since 1972, when about two million people a year died from malaria worldwide. In 2008, about 880,000 people died worldwide — way too many, but there has been no great increase in malaria in Africa since the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton in Texas, nor because the U.S. stopped spraying crops. (Mr. Tren seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge the facts: The U.S. “ban” on DDT applied only to U.S. crops; manufacture for export was specifically exempted from any ban, and still is.) Mr. Tren’s colleague in the unholy campaign against Rachel Carson, Dr. Donald Roberts, makes no claims of increased deaths nor increased incidence of disease. While Roberts raises a red herring argument, that EPA participated in the negotiations for the Stockholm Convention on pesticides, he fails to mention that the Stockholm agreement specifically exempts DDT from the convention. Any nation may use DDT, wholly within the bounds of the convention, merely by notifying WHO. (See the convention text, Annex B on page 28.)

    4. It’s not as absurd to say the ban on DDT saved lives, as it is to argue that more people died when the death rate declined — a death rate and number decline that Mr. Tren’s colleague, Dr. Roberts, acknowledges. Accuracy is never absurd, though it makes it difficult to justify Mr. Tren’s continued advocacy of poison use.

    5. Every mosquito on Earth now carries alleles of DDT resistance and immunity. DDT is not the tool against mosquitoes that it once was. (Here’s another TinyURL to see the facts: http://tinyurl.com/22sozwv ) DDT remains deadly to fish and birds, however.

    6. WHO is correct to call for an end to DDT use; WHO is correct to allow DDT use wherever appropriate while the search for a safe and effective alternative continues, in the hopes that DDT can be replaced. WHO recognizes both the dangers and benefits of DDT. We would all do well to join WHO, and recognize the significant and continuing dangers of DDT, particularly in the light of the declining benefits.

    WHO’s noting the dangers has not made DDT unavailable to anyone. WHO has no authority to stop any African nation from using DDT.

    7. You’re right: Miller writes absurdity when he argues we should poison Africa to health! Everyone who argues we should increase DDT use significantly makes an absurd argument. Anyone who claims, counter to the facts of declining malaria deaths, that there was animus against Africa or Africans in banning DDT use on crops in the U.S. also makes an absurd claim, but an absurd claim full of calumny.

    Stick to the facts, please.

  • richardtren

    Some comments in response to the points made above:

    1. The Stockholm convention leaves DDT on the market for use against malaria. Any organization or government who wishes to use DDT need only tell the World Health Organization. WHO has no authority to stop any nation from using DDT, even if WHO is not notified.

    Well – true – except that countries can’t just decide to use DDT, they need finance and support. If it were that easy why has Uganda had such a hard time trying to use DDT? Fears expressed by the EU and campaigns by environmentalists including Ken Lukyamuzi effectively shut down their hopes of using DDT.

    2. DDT is still manufactured in great quantities, in India and North Korea. It’s available and cheap for anyone who wishes to use it.

    Great quantities? First North Korea doesn’t export. India does produce but after China stopped producing, prices have been rising.

    3. Malaria deaths have declined since 2001, not risen. The incidence of malaria has also declined. Since the U.S. banned DDT use on cotton in 1972, the malaria death rate has dropped by more than half. Since DDT’s peak use in 1959 and 1960, malaria death rates have declined by more than two-thirds. Malaria deaths now are at the lowest they have been in human history. Whoever told you the rates were up, told you incorrectly. Dr. Miller, please stop the spread of false information.

    Well, Mr. Darrell has been corrected on this point before – A robust response to his many misleading claims is given here -http://tinyurl.com/3ymxtof

    4. Since the malaria death toll was about 3 million per year when DDT use was at its peak, and about 2 million per year in 1972 when the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton, and under 1 million per year since about 2002, it would be more fair to say that stopping the use of DDT willy-nilly has saved between 40 million and 60 million deaths to malaria.

    An absurd statement

    5. WHO slowed DDT use in 1965, seven years prior to the U.S. “ban,” because mosquitoes in Africa had been bred to be immune to DDT. More DDT probably would have saved no one’s life, but it would have wasted money better spent on other methods of fighting malaria.

    WHO was incorrect in their assessment of the effect of DDT resistance – and Darrell is wrong yet again to keep spreading this notion that DDT resistance to its toxic action made it useless.

    6. WHO never stopped using DDT completely. WHO’s 2005 press release was to emphasize that their use was always in very limited, indoor residual spraying, and that such use does not contaminate broad areas of the outdoors.

    Well it was a 2006 press release – but in any event, how is it possible to overlook WHA resolution 50.13 of 1997 which calls on countries to stop using DDT? Was it WHO that secured an exemption for ongoing use of DDT under the Stockholm Convention? NO – it was the likes of Don Roberts, Amir Attaran, Malaria Foundation International headed by Dr Mary Galinski… and about 400 other scientists that put pressure on the negotiations.

    7. Dr. Miller comes out with at least one editorial each year urging that we poison Africa. It’s time he studied malaria, health care, Africans, and DDT, and got off that kick. We can’t poison Africa to good health, and Miller’s urging the use of DDT inappropriately only delays the delivery of the services that will save kids from malaria.

    Poison Africa to good health – good grief! The absurdity of Mr. Darrell’s statements know no bounds apparently

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ed-Darrell/792424971 Ed Darrell

    1. The Stockholm convention leaves DDT on the market for use against malaria. Any organization or government who wishes to use DDT need only tell the World Health Organization. WHO has no authority to stop any nation from using DDT, even if WHO is not notified.

    2. DDT is still manufactured in great quantities, in India and North Korea. It’s available and cheap for anyone who wishes to use it.

    3. Malaria deaths have declined since 2001, not risen. The incidence of malaria has also declined. Since the U.S. banned DDT use on cotton in 1972, the malaria death rate has dropped by more than half. Since DDT’s peak use in 1959 and 1960, malaria death rates have declined by more than two-thirds. Malaria deaths now are at the lowest they have been in human history. Whoever told you the rates were up, told you incorrectly. Dr. Miller, please stop the spread of false information.

    4. Since the malaria death toll was about 3 million per year when DDT use was at its peak, and about 2 million per year in 1972 when the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton, and under 1 million per year since about 2002, it would be more fair to say that stopping the use of DDT willy-nilly has saved between 40 million and 60 million deaths to malaria.

    5. WHO slowed DDT use in 1965, seven years prior to the U.S. “ban,” because mosquitoes in Africa had been bred to be immune to DDT. More DDT probably would have saved no one’s life, but it would have wasted money better spent on other methods of fighting malaria.

    6. WHO never stopped using DDT completely. WHO’s 2005 press release was to emphasize that their use was always in very limited, indoor residual spraying, and that such use does not contaminate broad areas of the outdoors.

    7. Dr. Miller comes out with at least one editorial each year urging that we poison Africa. It’s time he studied malaria, health care, Africans, and DDT, and got off that kick. We can’t poison Africa to good health, and Miller’s urging the use of DDT inappropriately only delays the delivery of the services that will save kids from malaria.

    Bono’s right. Shame on Dr. Miller for slamming the humanitarians at the UN.