Committing Malpractice On The World's Poor
These unnatural disasters can no longer be tolerated
The tsunami that struck Asia and Somalia left unprecedented, unfathomable, unspeakable death and destruction in its wake. It was a shocking reminder that, for all its transcendent beauty and bounties, Mother Nature still periodically unleashes awesome powers that threaten our lives, even our very civilization - and expose the shocking vulnerability of our Earth's poorest families and communities.
Equally unprecedented is the life-giving aid that continues to flow to these battered regions. It reflects the best that humans are capable of - and the vital importance of modern technology, medicine, communication and transportation.
This monumental natural disaster has seized our attention. But as horrible as it was, it must not distract us from other calamities that continue to kill millions in destitute countries around the world, and help keep their communities impoverished.
These calamities certainly have their origins in nature. But they can no longer be called natural disasters, for today we have the knowledge and technology to solve them. Unfortunately, we lack the moral fiber and political will to do so. Indeed, in many cases, these disasters have been prolonged and worsened by the very agencies created to be caregivers for the world's poor.
Four million people a year die from lung infections, caused by constantly breathing smoke, dust, bacteria and pollutants from wood and dung that they must burn for cooking and heating - because families don't have electricity, and activist groups stymie hydroelectric and other generation projects. Six million more perish from dysentery and other intestinal diseases, caused by spoiled food and unsafe water, due to nonexistent refrigeration and water purification - again the result of not having electricity.
Eleven million succumb annually to malnutrition and starvation, because their nations still rely on primitive farming methods and activists prevent the introduction of biotechnology that could help farmers grow more nutritious crops in dry, saline and nutrient-poor soil, and with fewer fertilizers and pesticides. Millions more are felled by malaria, because infected mosquitoes are everywhere and pressure groups prevent their countries from using pesticides.
The world's poor justifiably expect aid agencies like the World Health Organization to help them confront these disasters and counter anti-technology campaigns by misanthropic groups like Greenpeace, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network. After all, the WHO was created to help all people attain "the highest possible level of health," improve sanitation, prevent the spread of infectious disease and save lives. It has a special duty to the well-being of people whose countries lack the healthcare systems that are practically taken for granted in developed nations.
Today, however, the WHO is adrift in a sea of political correctitude. It gives lip service to Third World needs, but devotes attention to First World concerns like obesity, traffic deaths, cancer and global warming.
Asian children dying of vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition hardly need to worry about obesity. African villagers are much more likely to be struck down by sleeping sickness than by an errant car. Indian and Bolivian mothers, hacking away from tuberculosis or wasting away from dysentery, won't live long enough even to get cancer, much less die from it.
As to conjectural theories of catastrophic global climate change, Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg calculates that the Kyoto treaty would slash global economic growth by $150 billion a year - to cut hypothetical temperature increases by 0.3 degrees by 2050. For half that amount, he says, we could provide clean water, proper sanitation, quality education and modern healthcare for every poor person on the planet.
Even when WHO and its agencies convened an AIDS conference in Bangkok, attendees spent as much energy extolling sexual freedom and bashing pharmaceutical companies, patents, President Bush and Uganda's ABC program (Abstain, Be faithful and use a Condom), as on devising solutions that might actually work.
Nowhere, though, has WHO failed more miserably to carry out its primary mission than in the case of malaria. This disease makes tens of millions too sick to work for weeks on end, leaves thousands with permanent brain damage, kills up to a million children and a million pregnant women every year, and costs Africa and India alone some $13 billion a year in lost GDP. Since DDT was banned in 1972, malaria has killed over 50 million people - including thousands who might have become the next Nelson Mandela or George Washington Carver.
Six years ago, the WHO and its Roll Back Malaria campaign promised to halve malaria rates by 2010. Since then, rates have actually increased by over 10 percent. A primary reason is that WHO and RBM - as well as UNICEF and the U.S. Agency for International Development - refuse to permit, promote or fund pesticide use to control mosquitoes, or even acknowledge the critical role of DDT and other pesticides in preventing malaria.
After using DDT for years to control the disease, South Africa bowed to environmentalist pressure, and switched to another, more politically acceptable pesticide. Within three years, malaria shot from a few thousand cases a year to nearly 70,000. So the country reintroduced DDT, using it to spray the walls and eaves of homes. It slashed malaria by 80 percent in 18 months. A year into the program, it began treating seriously ill patients with the new drug Coartem. In just three years, it cut malaria rates by over 91 percent!
But in the face of this astonishing success, these "doctors for the world's poor" steadfastly refuse to adopt the South African program, or even support other countries that want to adopt it. Intimidated by radical environmentalists, captivated by eco-centric anti-pesticide policies, they refuse to add pesticides (especially DDT) to their arsenal.
Even worse, until a few months ago, these same agencies actively prescribed, promoted and provided drugs that they had known for years are no longer effective in treating malaria. In fact, the drugs now fail 50 to 80 percent of the time.
The agencies have finally switched to Coartem. But without pesticides to control mosquitoes, hundreds of millions of people will still get malaria, and providing the drug to all these people - in countries that don't have adequate roads, clinics or doctors - is virtually impossible.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people are dying every year who would live if their countries could use DDT, in conjunction with bed nets, modern drugs and other strategies.
If healthcare professionals ignored proven technologies for preventing disease in Canada and the USA - relying instead on nominally effective methods - they'd likely be fired. If they knowingly prescribed or provided obsolete drugs to their patients, they'd be jailed for malpractice and wrongful death.
One has to wonder if WHO decision-makers and anti-pesticide activists share the views of Club of Rome founder Alexander King, who once said: "My chief quarrel with DDT in retrospect is that it has greatly added to the population problem."
These incompetent programs violate malaria victims' most basic human rights. They glorify ultra precaution over alleged risks from pesticides - at the expense of millions of deaths from a disease the pesticides could prevent. And yet, the bureaucrats and eco-activists are not held to account for helping to perpetuate the slaughter.
The unnatural disaster of malaria lacks the drama of massive tidal waves engulfing sunbathers and resorts, of helicopters aiding survivors. But the result - two million mothers and children dead from readily preventable malaria, year after year - are no less horrific.
The United States sprays pesticides across Dade County, Florida and other communities, to prevent outbreaks of West Nile Virus - which in three years has killed a total of 300 Americans. So do Canada and other nations. For them and the agencies they fund to deny effective pesticides to the world's poorest people is hypocritical, and unconscionable.
One can only hope that the tsunami will bring about a rebirth of compassion, an end to empty promises, a new focus on programs that work - and a condemnation of ideologically driven activists and bureaucrats who have benefited so much from the very technologies they prevent the Third World poor from acquiring. Whether it's malaria prevention, electricity generation, agricultural biotechnology or economic development, the world's poor deserve better.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power · Black Death