Sickle Cell Mos-keeters

April 28, 2010

Reposting this guest-commentary (by Patrick Moffitt) from the Center for Environmental Journalism. As someone who has lived through two Russian summers, and thus witnessed the aggressive onslaught of the post-Soviet mosquito, I will tell you that, upon reflection, I find the core assertion of this article not surprising in the least. I recall one time in particular, as I was walking through a park during White Nights, that I could feel the mosquitoes batting into my legs with the force of thousands of blades of hostile grass. I have, as well, slept several nights in country Dachas, burying my head under the sheets in a vain attempt to keep the buzzing parasites from doing the nasty in my ear canal.

The malaria climate connection however raises important ethical questions. Malaria is too often framed as a “climate disease” by NGOs, regulatory agencies, media and some scientists. (See here and here.) This carefully constructed message implies the control of malaria requires that we control carbon dioxide emissions. This message is untrue, unethical and immoral.

Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease that we allow, by our inaction, to kill one million people and infect another 250 million to 350 million each year. (See this report from the World Health Organization.) These are not modeled deaths. Nor are they possible deaths related to some future carbon scenario. These dead had names, were loved, and are mourned. And nearly 80% of these dead are African children under the age of five.

Malaria, for some reason, seems to be the bugaboo of the anti-environmental community. Rachel Carson has certainly taken her lumps for allegedly “causing” the deaths of millions, a view that has been heavily disputed in many places, though usually on empirical grounds.

My view is that this is a straw man. Nobody but the most extremely silly in the environmental community actually argue that all pesticides and all spraying to eradicate a scourge like the mosquito is unacceptable. Most people take a considerably more measured approach. Even in Boulder, bastion of environmentalism, we spray for West Nile Virus. Frankly, as a one-time victim of meningitis, I’d like to see a bit more spraying for West Nile in Boulder. Alas, as luck has it, we have plenty of extremely silly people who fetishize one concern to the neglect of another. People do that with vaccines too.

It is, however, an important point: that not all environmental disasters are attributable to climate change, and once in a while it is important to just address questions in a more traditional context.

I’m not sure if there are more effective pesticides on the market than DDT, but certainly, if there’s an outbreak of malaria, it makes sense to spray. It just doesn’t make sense to spray indiscriminately. And it’s the spraying indiscriminately, it seems to me, that rankles the feathers of otherwise silent environmentalists.


  1. There are pesticides other than DDT. However the malaria mosquitoes can develop resistance. In some places they are resistant to DDT and in others to the DDT alternative. We need them both.

    DDT is no longer indiscriminately sprayed for mosquito control. In some areas of Africa with high mosquito populations the interior walls of the home are sprayed. It is the same type of interior spraying that was done in the US south in the late 1940s.

  2. The jihad against Rachel Carson was started by a piece of slime named Roger Bate, who sold the idea to the tobacco guys as a distraction to the WHO

    The stuff you quoted needs a lot of caveating. Artemisinin based triple therapies are the standard, but there are worrying signs of developing resistance. Today it is effective but the price has to come down in order to make it universally available to the poorest of the poor who are important reservoirs of the disease as well as victims. Prevention with DDT impregnated bed nets seems to be the best way of prevention.

    The interesting thing about malaria is that we get is from the mosquitos and they get it from us. If you wipe out the disease in humans, you essentially dry up the reservoir locally which is how it was wiped out in most of the US although we still have mosquitos.

    And yes, everything else being equal, the warmer it is, the tougher it is to wipe out malaria

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