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UN Falsehoods Cost Lives

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Setting up experiments and then ignoring the results when they do not give you what you want amounts to scientific malfeasance. All in a day’s work at the UN Environment Program.

If the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed herbal tea, Pilates, and a better diet could effectively treat leukemia, one would be outraged (even more so if one’s child were very sick with the disease). You might also wonder why the EPA was interfering with public health. Fortunately, America’s children do not face such insanity; but children at risk of malaria do, courtesy of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

UNEP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a UN partnership, claim that whitewashing houses, planting trees, and other unproven interventions are effective against malaria. They use these incorrect claims—made in press releases, interviews, and various publications—to justify a global elimination of the public health insecticide DDT by 2020, even though many malaria control programs rely on DDT’s proven life-saving properties.

Malaria is an insect-borne disease and, for most of the world, preventing it requires insecticides. Insecticides can be sprayed inside houses or coated on bed nets. When used in these ways, insecticides are safe for humans and the environment, and provide much-needed protection from deadly mosquitoes.

The United Nations Environment Program and the Global Environment Facility use incorrect claims to justify a global elimination of the public health insecticide DDT by 2020.

Drugs can treat the hundreds of thousands who contract malaria every year, and can also be used preventatively in some places. But DDT and other insecticides are essential in most parts of the malarial world.

Under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which regulates the use of DDT, UNEP and GEF orchestrated malaria control experiments in Mexico and seven Central American countries between 2003 and 2008. Their goal was to show that malaria control is possible without DDT, and indeed without any insecticides.

They compared their “environmentally sound” interventions against control areas without interventions and claimed an impressive reduction in malaria of over 60 percent. This claim is false.

An independent epidemiological assessment of the experiments, conducted by a specialist from the region for the UNEP/GEF project and presented at a UNEP/GEF meeting, found no difference in malaria rates between the demonstration areas and the controls. The UNEP/GEF project’s own final evaluation suggested that the experiments be redone. UNEP ignored these facts and proclaimed great success. When we challenged UNEP/GEF about their claims, our correspondence went unanswered.

While malaria declined by 60 percent in some areas of Mexico and Central America, this success has nothing to do with the environmental interventions, as UNEP claims. According to Pan American Health Organization data and regional malaria specialists, it was caused by the widespread distribution of malaria-preventing drugs.

As Latin American countries reduced their use of public health insecticides, malaria rates increased.

It is important to note that such methods are not possible for the hundreds of millions of Africans at risk of malaria because of drug resistance and vast cost. Thus, DDT and other insecticides are vital in Africa.

Indeed, as Latin American countries reduced their use of public health insecticides, malaria rates increased. Countries in Central America were forced to use drugs to control malaria after the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation effectively shut down DDT production and use for the whole region.

Setting up experiments and then ignoring the controls when the results do not give you what you want amounts to scientific malfeasance. Using false results to justify eliminating DDT by some arbitrary, politically determined date is reckless and deadly. DDT is already hard to obtain because of years of propaganda against it. The UNEP and GEF falsehoods make it harder still, endangering the lives of thousands of children.

One might wonder how UNEP and GEF can get away with such obvious misrepresentation. It’s simple, really: multiple vested interests are lined up against DDT use. These include numerous anti-insecticide environmental activist groups, companies selling alternative products such as other insecticides and bed nets, and UN agencies.

Our preposterous example above regarding leukemia would never happen, not because the EPA is not capable of overreaching, but because numerous interests would oppose it. Western parents, supported by oncology doctors, medical associations, and drug companies, would cry foul and the media would avidly report it. Unfortunately, DDT has no powerful defenders.

Whether or not UNEP, GEF, and their allies get their way depends in large part on the senior leadership of the World Health Organization, which can and should stop this scientific abuse from their UN colleagues.

After a Chinese producer of DDT shut down in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, DDT is now only produced by a state-owned company in India that is not particularly adept at influencing public health policy. There is little prospect that a new DDT producer will start production when the UN has publicly vowed to shut down DDT use in less than 10 years. African mothers and their vulnerable children have no voice. While a few bold ministers of health from Namibia, Guyana, and elsewhere have spoken out defending their right to use DDT, their appeals are drowned out and dominated by Northern interests, who have given environmental activists within UNEP and GEF considerable power and millions of dollars.

One might think insecticide companies would defend DDT, recognizing that important principles of sound science and evidence-based public health policies are at stake. Yet in their myopic way, industry lobby group CropLife International is lining up behind UNEP and pushing for an early elimination of DDT, claiming of course that their own products are suitable alternatives.

Whether UNEP, GEF, and their allies get their way depends in large part on the senior leadership of the World Health Organization, which can and should stop this scientific abuse from their UN colleagues. It also depends on whether the governments that pay the UN’s bills will stand for this nonsense. They should insist that any malaria control funds allocated to UNEP and GEF be immediately transferred to agencies whose primary goal is eliminating malaria rather than eliminating the tools required to get there.

Roger Bate is the Legatum Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Tren is the director of Africa Fighting Malaria. See www.fightingmalaria.org for details of their recent research.

FURTHER READING: Bate and Tren discuss “The United Nations' Scientific Fraud against DDT” and investigate “Malaria Treatment in Africa.” Bate writes about “Africa's Epidemic of Disappearing Medicine,” DDT as “The Excellent Powder,” and challenges patients, “How Safe Are Your Medicines?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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