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Anti-DDT lobby could slow fight against malaria , minister says

Malaria mosquito.
Swiss Radio

Environmentalists against the use of the pesticide DDT could harm efforts to eradicate malaria in Uganda, the minister of health, Jim Muhwezi, said on Monday.

If environmentalists continued to pressure donors to discourage the use of DDT, he said 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 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 organizations including WHO, the UN Children's Fund, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank, 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, Muhwezi said. He added that the country spent an average of US $347 million annually to buy anti-malaria medicine.

In April 2004, the 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 fears that it could be harmful to the environment.

On its website, the conservation organization, 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 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," 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 the Ministry of Health, Dr John Rwakimari, treatment of the disease has become more complicated with patients developing high resistance to common malaria drugs.

"Chloroquine and fansidar are no longer effective against malaria," he told IRIN on Friday.

He added that part of the $66-million the country recently secured from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, would be used to buy more effective drugs.

Muhwezi said lack of access to health centres was another cause of many malaria deaths. He added that by June, the 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, Muhwezi said, in conjunction with insecticide-treated bednets. The government has already distributed 1.4 million nets free, while another 600,000 have been sold through the private sector.

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.

Asked if the government feared the loss of trade with the EU, 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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