Fight against Malaria hindered by anti-DDT campaigners

2014-05-27 00:00

NEXT year, South Africa will probably meet its Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the incidence of malaria, thanks to the careful, targeted spraying of insecticides, including DDT, in houses.

The insecticides protect residents for an entire malaria transmission season, saving countless lives. This method of malaria control is safe for residents and the environment, and is approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and leading malaria scientists. Despite the overwhelming public health benefits of spraying with DDT, some, who should know better, campaign against it.

Last year, Professor Henk Bouwman of North-West University and his co-authors, published a paper in the respectable journal Environmental Research, claiming that DDT spraying leads to the thinning of bird eggshells. Bouwman collected just 15 cattle egret eggs, five in an area of Limpopo where DDT is sprayed indoors for malaria control, and 10 where no malaria control is conducted. After measuring eggshell thickness and levels of DDT and its metabolite DDE, Bouwman performed a regression analysis and concluded that DDT thins eggshells.

The idea that DDT thins eggshells is not new, but Bouwman used his research to advocate against DDT for malaria control. Let us accept for a moment that Bouwman’s evidence was solid — one would still have to weigh potential harm to birds with the enormous life-saving benefits of using DDT. But, in fact, we cannot make even that supposition, because Bouwman’s analysis was false.

In analysing his data, Bouwman, in what we assume was a blunder, transposed the data from the DDT-sprayed areas and unsprayed areas. An accurate analysis of his data actually reveals that the eggshells in the sprayed areas were marginally thicker than in the unsprayed areas. Yet based on his false analysis, Bouwman argued that “there is good cause for concern about the reproductive performance of the cattle egrets in the study area and also in other DDT-sprayed areas in Africa”.

We, with seven other malaria experts, published a response to Bouwman’s paper in Environmental Research , exposing his falsehoods and incorrect conclusions. Bouwman was alerted to his mistake when our response was accepted for publication in January.

To date, no erratum or response from Bouwman or his co-authors has been published. This episode is of great concern to the malaria-control community in southern Africa. Bouwman and a small clique of scientists have long campaigned against DDT using the flimsiest of data, and in the case of Bouwman’s latest efforts, falsehoods.

In 2009, Bouwman said on TV that Caster Semenya’s intersex condition was linked to DDT, causing alarm in malarial areas, to the detriment of disease-control efforts. Pressed to provide evidence for his scaremongering, he refused.

This affair raises some important questions. How is it that the peer-review process failed so dramatically and the journal went ahead and published such falsehoods?

Could it be that the reviewers so clung to previously held beliefs about DDT that they did not check his work?

How should SA’s taxpayers respond, when they learn that the Water Research Commission, which they fund, sponsored Bouwman’s research? And why should taxpayers support faulty research that is used to campaign against another taxpayer-funded programme that saves lives from deadly malarial mosquitoes?

Anyone can make mistakes, but why does North-West University’s council permit one of its faculty to behave in an unprofessional manner, making outlandish statements and refusing to communicate with peers, thereby frustrating efforts to correct his mistakes?

Since the early sixties, environmental campaigners have lobbied against DDT, although it has, according to the WHO, saved many millions of lives.

We fully expect the search for some environmental and/or human health harm from DDT to continue, although thousands of studies over decades have uncovered precious little. Yet we hope that the unfortunate Bouwman affair gives other scientists, journal editors, and the public, a wake-up call. — FMF.

• Jasson Urbach is director of Africa Fighting Malaria, South Africa.

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