Saturday, July 14, 2007

We live on a malarious planet

“Malaria now affects more people than ever before. It’s endemic to 106 nations, threatening half the world’s population.”

I’ve been aware that malaria is a serious problem, but wasn’t aware of how incredibly serious it is until I read the July, 2007 National Geographic Magazine article, Bedlam in the Blood - Malaria, including the quote above. It's by Michael Finkel, who managed to avoid getting malaria while doing the story but contracted the disease while traveling in northern Thailand in 2002.

Says Finkel, “We live on a malarious planet. It may not seem that way from the vantage point of a wealthy country, where malaria is sometimes thought of, if it is thought of at all, as a problem that has mostly been solved, like smallpox or polio. In truth, malaria now affects more people than ever before. It's endemic to 106 nations, threatening half the world's population. In recent years, the parasite has grown so entrenched and has developed resistance to so many drugs that the most potent strains can scarcely be controlled. This year malaria will strike up to a half billion people. At least a million will die, most of them under age five, the vast majority living in Africa. That's more than twice the annual toll a generation ago.”

I wonder why we in the U.S., except for Bill and Melinda Gates, pay so little attention to this devastating problem. Finkel answers, “The outcry over this epidemic, until recently, has been muted. Malaria is a plague of the poor, easy to overlook. The most unfortunate fact about malaria, some researchers believe, is that prosperous nations got rid of it. In the meantime, several distinctly unprosperous regions have reached the brink of total malarial collapse, virtually ruled by swarms of buzzing, flying syringes.”

Finkel focuses on Zambia, a landlocked country in south-central Africa. The photos by John Stanmeyer include other continents and countries affected by malaria. If you don’t have time to read the article, take a few minutes to listen to John Stanmeyer, who shares his thoughts on the impact of this deadly disease here. Also, there are several links, all worth checking, available from the homepage for this article.

Here’s my dilemma: the effectiveness of DDT in eradicating malaria. As an environmentalist, I’ve always considered DDT bad, bad, bad. The banning of DDT in the 1970’s is considered the primary reason that the bald eagle population has recovered to the point where it was taken off the endangered species list on June 29, 2007.

On May 27, I blogged about Rachel Carson, in honor of her 100th birthday. Carson is undoubtedly more responsible than any other single person for the banning of DDT in this country. On June 5, 2007, John Tierney, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. wrote Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science (subscription required), in which he blasts Carson: ‘She cited scary figures showing a recent rise in deaths from cancer [from the use of DDT], but she didn’t consider one of the chief causes: fewer people were dying at young ages from other diseases (including the malaria that persisted in the American South until DDT). "

The National Geographic chart, (point and click to enlarge it) makes it clear that stopping the use of DDT between 1996 and 2000 resulted in a spike of deaths from malaria in the three provinces in South Africa which became the case study.

I don’t have an answer to my dilemma about the use of DDT to combat malaria since it didn’t really hit home until last night as I read Bedlam in the Blood - Malaria. Perhaps I’m pinning my hopes on eradicating malaria by using something other than DDT, including the work by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Rolling Back Malaria: New Tools for Fighting a Leading Killer.

(photo of anopheles mosquito – from the National Geographic Magazine – a color-synthesizing scanning electron microscope image by David Scharf)

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