Women will continue dying from malaria, until Europe rejects its colonialist past.
Every year, 250 million women and 125 million little girls are stricken by acute malaria. At least 750,000 of them die. That’s more victims than there are people in the United States and Canada combined.
Fevers, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium and unconsciousness leave victims unable to work, cultivate fields, attend school or care for their families, for weeks on end. Many are permanently brain damaged. Eight out of ten are in sub-Saharan Africa, where this terrible disease is one more nail in the coffin of hope for eventual economic prosperity.
This year, there can be no better way to recall International Women’s Day (March 8) than by resolving to control this disease – and confront those who help prolong the misery and early death of women and girls in so many poor countries.
43 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.” That one day we will live up to the words “all men are created equal.” That one day there will be freedom and justice for all.
America’s civil rights movement eventually triumphed. But the struggle for human rights and equal justice continues, against new opponents, on new battlefields.
One global battle involves the fundamental right to life itself – and to obtain and use technologies that safeguard human life from the ravages of disease. For without life, it is impossible to enjoy liberty, pursue happiness or benefit from the other rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator.
That’s why I too have a dream – of a day when parents and children everywhere can live as we do in Europe and the United States: without fear of being struck down by malaria.
The disease once killed thousands of Americans annually, from New York to California, from Florida and Louisiana to Michigan and Alaska. Even in the 1930s, malaria reduced the industrial output of the USA’s southern states by a third.
It arrived in Europe 2,600 years ago. Hippocrates described it, Cromwell died from it, Charles II and Louis XIV nearly perished, and Rome was saved several times from Germanic armies whose ranks were decimated by the deadly fever. From Italy and Romania to Poland and the English Channel, malarial mosquitoes ruled over Europe for centuries. Homegrown malaria was not eradicated in Germany until 1950, in the Netherlands until 1959.
Many factors and aggressive interventions finally ended its debilitating, deadly grip. The United States and Europe drained mosquito-infested marshes, the postwar economy improved people’s health and nutrition, houses got screens – and government healthcare workers regularly sprayed DDT.
In short, on both continents, we took whatever measures were necessary to eradicate this killer. Once we became malaria-free, however, we began to impose restrictions that have helped perpetuate malaria elsewhere, especially in Africa.
We essentially banned DDT, while grudgingly leaving a rarely honored exception in the Stockholm Convention. We promoted bed nets and education – while awaiting a vaccine that’s still a decade away, and hoping mud-and-thatch huts will miraculously be transformed into modern homes with doors and window screens. With few exceptions, aid agencies refused to supply, fund or even allow the use of insecticides, especially DDT. Even worse, when countries like Kenya and Uganda said they were planning to spray with DDT, callous European bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists threatened trade bans against their agricultural products.
Simply put, we emphasized fears about speculative risks from trace amounts of insecticides – and ignored the real, immediate, life-or-death risks that those insecticides could prevent. Not surprisingly, the result has been another Holocaust of African mothers, fathers and children every few years, a death toll since the 1972 DDT ban that surpasses World War II’s – over 50 million people. It is a travesty worse than colonialism ever was, a human rights violation of monstrous proportions.
I have seen this devastation with my own eyes. My wife watched it destroy the lives of her African friends and family members. Last Christmas, my nephew returned to a Ugandan school that he sponsors, to find that 50 of its 500 young students had died from malaria in just 12 months. My daughter-in-law lost two sisters, two nephews and her little son.
No other insecticide, and no bed net – at any price – works as well as DDT. Sprayed in small quantities, just once or twice a year on the walls and eaves of mud-and-thatch or cinder-block homes, it keeps 90% of mosquitoes from entering. It irritates any that do enter, so they rarely bite, and kills those that land on walls. Used this way, virtually no DDT even enters the environment, and the results are astounding.
Within two years of starting DDT programs, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and Swaziland slashed their malaria rates by 75% or more. With fewer people getting sick, they could get scarce ACT drugs to nearly all victims, and cut rates even further. No wonder other countries want to launch similar programs.
My dream of a malaria-free Africa is coming closer to reality. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Greenpeace co-founder, and hundreds of physicians, clergy, human rights advocates and other people of conscience have signed the Kill Malarial Mosquitoes NOW declaration, demanding that DDT be put back into the malaria control arsenal. (See www.FightingMalaria.org) The US Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, now support indoor DDT spraying. The U.S. Agency for International Development has begun to purchase this and other insecticides, and initiate spraying programs in several countries.
Now Europe must do its part. Individual countries and the EU Parliament must issue an unequivocal declaration, supporting DDT for disease control. Affirming the right of every country’s health minister to decide which weapons to use in combating disease. Agreeing to support and finance insecticide spraying programs. And pledging to penalize any country, organization or individual who threatens to impose trade or other sanctions on nations that use DDT or other insecticides to save lives.
For too long, the European Union, World Health Organization, World Bank and other agencies let well-intended, but horribly misguided policies perpetuate malaria’s global reign of terror. They have it within their power to change these policies, save millions of lives, and improve health and economic conditions for billions.
If they would find the moral clarity and political willpower to do so, Dr. King’s dream of equality, justice, health and prosperity will come to Africa and other malaria epidemic regions. Millions of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons will be alive to thank them. And we could celebrate, rather than merely commemorate, the next International Women’s Day.