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Health | Environment - Nature

Row over DDT use against malaria in Uganda

Misanet / IRIN, 25 April - Environmentalists against the use of the dangerous pesticide DDT could harm efforts to eradicate malaria in Uganda, the Minister of Health, Jim Muhwezi, said today. While the Minister points to WHO recommendations on the use of DDT, environmentalists emphasise that the pesticide is so dangerous that it is prohibited outside Africa. Europe however got rid of malaria using DDT.

If environmentalists continued to pressure donors to discourage the use of DDT, said Minister Muhwezi on Africa Malaria Day, "any efforts to roll back malaria would be fruitless. DDT has been proven, over and over again, to be the most effective and least expensive method of fighting malaria," he told the UN media 'IRIN'.

- Europe and America became malaria free because of using DDT, and now we too intend to get rid of malaria by using it, he added. "Cases have continued to increase since launching the 'Roll Back Malaria' programme in 1998, from 5.5 million to 16.5 million in 2004."

Malaria is transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the disease occurs in at least 100 countries and kills at least a million people every year, mostly young children in Africa south of the Sahara. The Roll Back Malaria programme, initiated by 90 organisations including WHO, aims to halve malaria deaths in Africa by 2010.

However, up to 515 million people around the world continue to suffer from malaria every year, according to a recent study by Oxford University, UK, with 90 percent of the cases occurring in Africa. In Uganda, malaria kills between 70,000 and 110,000 children every year, Minister Muhwezi said. He added that the country spent an average of US$ 347 million annually to buy anti-malaria medicine.

In April 2004, Uganda's Ministry of Health announced plans to use DDT to combat the nation's rising prevalence of malaria, a move widely condemned by environmentalists. Concerns have been raised about the pesticide's long-term effects on the environment, as well as possible consequences to the health of humans and animals.

Although Europe and the US used DDT to eradicate malaria, they banned its use decades ago, over proofs that it could be harmful to the environment. DDT is known to accumulate upwards the nutritional chain. After long use in the north, especially predators and birds of prey were badly affected by the poison, which also was said to have caused damaged on new-born humans.

The conservation organisation WWF says it has found "sufficient evidence of hazards to human health and wildlife to justify a global ban on the production and use of DDT." WWF says the pesticide could harm human health by damaging the developing brain, causing hypersensitivity, behavioural abnormalities and a suppressed immune system.

The Ugandan government now has authorised the National Environment Management Authority to organise an environmental impact assessment analysis before the importation of the pesticide. "We decided to consult with all stakeholders, including the environmentalists, before beginning to use DDT," Minister Muhwezi said. "We will start once their environmental impact assessment is complete."

He said Uganda intended to use DDT only indoors, as recommended by WHO. Moreover, he said, the pesticide would initially be sprayed in pilot areas before being used countrywide.

According to the malaria programme control manager in Uganda's Ministry of Health, Dr John Rwakimari, treatment of the disease has become more complicated with mosquitoes developing high resistance to common malaria drugs. "Chloroquine and fansidar are no longer effective against malaria," he told 'IRIN' on Friday. He added fresh funds would be used to buy more effective drugs.

Minister Muhwezi said lack of access to health centres was another cause of many malaria deaths. He added that by June, the Ugandan government planned to double - from 30 percent - the number of patients able to access medical attention within 24 hours of the onset of the disease's symptoms.

DDT would be used, Mr Muhwezi said, in conjunction with insecticide-treated bed-nets. The government has already distributed 1.4 million nets free, while another 600,000 have been sold through the private sector. Minister Muhwezi said a further two million nets would be distributed to vulnerable groups such as young children and pregnant women.

The chief of the EU mission in Uganda, Sigurd Illing, said there could be dire consequences for the country's exports to Europe - which account for more than 30 percent of Uganda's total exports - if DDT was detected in export commodities such as horticultural produce. The EU has strict maximum limits of pesticide levels in products meant for animal or human consume, especially on prohibited chemicals such as DDT.

Asked if the Ugandan government feared the loss of trade with the EU, Minister Muhwezi said: "We are confident that because we plan to follow WHO regulations regarding the use of DDT, we will have no problems on that issue."

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