Malaria or DDT?

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe Facebook page posted a link to this article on The Daily Beast:

Today, most people under the age of 40 have probably never heard of Rachel Carson. But in the early 1960s, almost every American knew her name.

On Sept. 27, 1962, Rachel Carson changed her tone. Her next book, Silent Spring, which she called her “poison book,” was an angry, no-holds-barred polemic against pesticides: especially DDT.

The first chapter of Silent Spring, titled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” was almost biblical, appealing to our sense that we had sinned against our Creator. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… the cattle and sheep sickened and died… streams were lifeless… everywhere there was the shadow of death.” Birds, especially, had fallen victim to this strange evil. In a town that had once “throbbed with scores of bird voices there was now no sound, only silence.” A silent spring. Birds weren’t alone in their suffering. According to Carson, children suffered sudden death, aplastic anemia, birth defects, liver disease, chromosomal abnormalities, and leukemia—all caused by DDT. And women suffered infertility and uterine cancer.

Carson made it clear that she wasn’t talking about something that might happen—she was talking about something that had happened. Our war against nature had become a war against ourselves.

thedailybeast.com

I read the article. It was a thoughtful piece on the subject of the cost of chemophobia on the world today and the wholesale discarding of DDT as a method of eradicating a deadly parasite. I posted it on my timeline because I’m kind of a fan of thinking what if? on a broad range of topics. I also posted it as a comment on a friend’s tribute to Rachel Carson on their timeline. I was trying to send a message. I wanted to highlight the lack of caring for the massive numbers of deaths from Malaria across the entire tropical zone of the world, deaths that could have been prevented if we had simply pursued Malaria eradication beyond the borders of the United States the way that we pursued it within our own borders.

Now we have Malaria cases potentially showing up in Florida again (CDC) not to mention the Zika panic, and the question really should be asked: should we revive DDT as a preventative, or should we finally admit that we need to embrace a newer technological intervention?

A Yale-hosted defense of Silent Spring was immediately offered as a rebuttal to The Daily Beast article. A Yale education is probably of more value than an article on a random internet website, but the writing in that opinion piece didn’t do the institution or the value of its education any favors. It was filled with demonstrably slanted opinions like this one: 

The first thing worth remembering is that it wasn’t Rachel Carson who banned DDT. It was the very Republican Nixon

e360.yale.edu

This sort of riposte makes no sense as an argument unless you are certain your opponents are Republicans and/or conservative. Since I’m neither of those things and more than half of the other readers who might chance across the defense would not be of that mindset either, they clearly they need to work on their arguments a bit more if they wanted to sway disbelievers in the saintliness of Rachel Carson.

This slanted political tone goes on throughout the article. The finding that the programs were voluntarily stopped makes no mention of reasons for the stoppage. It could reasonably be assumed that the stoppages were in some way linked to fear of DDT brought about by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the associated naturalist movements that the book gave voice to. The administrators of these programs should have been afraid of the mosquitoes. As was observed by others, hindsight is always 20/20.

Even the negative health findings for DDT are inconclusive. Still inconclusive forty years later. If Malaria intervention was up to me, we’d have a Malaria vaccine already. Even better than that, we’d also engineer the mosquitoes to not be able to carry the disease:

Humans contract malaria from mosquitoes that are infected by parasites from the genus Plasmodium. Previous work had shown that mosquitoes could be engineered to rebuff the parasite P. falciparum1, but researchers lacked a way to ensure that the resistance genes would spread rapidly through a wild population.

In work published on 23 November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used a controversial method called ‘gene drive’ to ensure that an engineered mosquito would pass on its new resistance genes to nearly all of its offspring2 — not just half, as would normally be the case.

The result: a gene that could spread through a wild population like wildfire.

nature

…but there is little chance the GMO and vaccine fearing public will go for either solution at this point. If I’m forced to create a disease limiting solution from the toolbox we are currently stuck with, I’ll take DDT. I say this with the knowledge that Malaria is moving North with the warmer weather. Only a matter of time till we’ll be seeing a resurgence here in Austin.

If I’m forced to pick the form of poison, I’ll take the chemicals, thanks. They beat the hell out of having Malaria. How about we focus on waking up the population so they might embrace human intervention as a means of removing the aedes aegypti mosquito as a disease vector?

The mosquito Aedes aegypti is infamous for carrying Zika and dengue fever. The quest to kill it has consumed enormous amounts of money, time, and effort. So it seems counterintuitive that a team of scientists and health workers have just received $18 million to release these mosquitoes over densely populated parts of Brazil and Colombia.

Their insects are no ordinary mosquitoes, though. They’ve been implanted with a bacterium called Wolbachia, which stops them from spreading the viruses behind Zika, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and other diseases. It’s not totally clear how it does this, but it may be by competing with the viruses for nutrients or boosting the insects’ immune system. With this microbe inside them, the mosquitoes are no longer carriers of sickness. They are dead-ends.

theatlantic.com (gift subscription for the blog author still greatly desired)

…and even that approach is still going to be a battle to get people to accept. They’ll just know that it’s really GMO. Really man interfering with nature, the essence of Rachel Carson’s fearmongering fifty years later.

Then Ed Darrell waded onto my Facebook timeline, offering me multiple links to his blog articles on the subject of Rachel Carson, DDT and Malaria:

If you want to fight #malaria, do what the U.S. did to beat it in 1939: Better housing, prompt medical diagnosis and complete medical treatment.

#DDT used to have a role to play in campaigns to knock down malaria and eradicate it completely, as the U.S. did AFTER World War II, in mop up operations for those few places malaria remained.

But DDT stopped working against malaria in 1948 in the Mediterranean (as you know from reading “Silent Spring,” of course), and DDT resistance killed the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate malaria from Africa in, 1963.

Malaria is on the increase ONLY in India today, the last nation to make DDT and the heaviest user of the stuff. If DDT still worked, India should have been malaria-free decades ago.

But DDT doesn’t work. And so India is phasing it out, and will stop making it by 2020 if not earlier. Last year only ten places on Earth found any use for DDT.

Bednets are twice as effective as DDT in preventing malaria’s spread. Bednets are a fraction of the cost of a DDT campaign.

So we have a choice. We can fight malaria, or Zika, or any other vector-borne disease, or we can “bring back” DDT. But we can’t do both.

Ed Darrell

This is chemophobia. I’ve republished his quote verbatim simply to illustrate the problem. That is dedication to the effort of removing chemicals from our environment without ever understanding that everything everywhere is a chemical. I could have cited other sources on the subject of Rachel Carson if I wanted to or had run across them first:

As detailed by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet very readable analysis, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimatize “positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking.” Carson “encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.”

geneticliteracyproject.org (republished from Forbes)

I mean, I write this blog on an editing platform that is substantially no different than Ed Darrell’s. There is one key difference between the two of us though. I don’t go around pretending that I am some kind of authority on anything other than what I think. Ed Darrell, on the other hand, seemed to think that his blog entries on the subject of DDT meant something in the objective sense of meaning something and not just more hot air in the world.

For that matter he also seemed to think that opinion pieces produced in defense of his heroine Rachel Carson and against the dreaded chemical menace DDT meant more than the opinion pieces that I produced declaring the opposite, when they demonstrably don’t or rather can’t. They are opinions, take them or leave them as you please.

I get it and I simultaneously don’t give a shit. Both at the same time. DDT isn’t the answer to Malaria or Zika or any other bug-borne disease; but then neither is chemophobia and trusting to nature to do what is best for us. Nature doesn’t give a shit, either. If nature gave a shit about us we wouldn’t be in the middle of a climate change crisis, either. What I wanted was for the kneejerk chemophobic responses to stop. That is what I wanted and eventually got. Not for quite awhile, though.

Facebook

Postscript

The article on Facebook was taken down at least briefly (also Facebook) Which is why I copied the contents to this article and then embroidered them some years later. Ed Darrell’s Twitter account was suspended the last time I clicked the link and checked on him. He apparently fucked around and found out at some point after our little encounter on Facebook. It was only a matter of time.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast subsequently ran a segment lauding Rachel Carson as a forgotten superhero of science in 2018. Time changes and opinions change, apparently. Or maybe that is just the difference between the opinions of Bob and Jay Novella. Who knows or cares?

I haven’t heard a thing about the Zika virus since it first broke headlines as a mosquito-borne illness in 2016. Malaria has not seen a massive resurgence. Yet. It will if we don’t get treatments online that prevent its spread. There is a Malaria vaccine now. It’s not as effective as epidemiologists would like it to be. Given the antivaccination climate in the US over the COVID vaccine, I doubt you could get people to take it voluntarily. They’d rather spread the plague than stop it.

leasticoulddo.com