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FIRST-PERSON: Malaria, Africa & the sad story of a preventable tragedy

WASHINGTON (BP)–For years I’ve known, academically, of the sad consequences of many environment policies on the world’s poorest — those living in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America. Lately, my knowledge has become a bit more personal.

My son Peter returned a few days ago from Africa. He spent the prior six months volunteering with several mission works in Ethiopia and Uganda. A little over a month ago, despite his being on preventive medicine, he contracted malaria. My wife and I grieved as we video chatted with him in the early stages, watching our beloved son writhe in pain over 7,000 miles away, where we couldn’t even reach him to refresh him with a cool washcloth. But we were comforted to know that he had obtained the right medicines, and now, thank God, he’s pretty well recovered.

In stark contrast with the poverty of most people in sub-Saharan Africa, our wealth ensured his effective treatment there, and today, after he experienced some symptoms that hinted he might be having a relapse, we were able to have blood tests done. The results will tell whether he’s still infected — and if he is, the medications will be available to knock out the disease permanently.

The day before Peter returned from Africa, a friend forwarded me an email from yet another friend, a missionary in Kenya who asked prayer for the six-year-old daughter of one of his colleagues. She was not recovering from malaria and needed to be taken to a hospital. “Please pray that her tiny body will be strengthened,” he asked.

“This has been a VERY bad year for malaria,” he went on to explain. “Many of our staff, students, and students’ families have fallen ill. The rainy season (the worst time of year for malaria mosquitoes) has passed, but still people are getting sick. Please pray that the Lord would protect anyone else from succumbing!”

These stories reminded me of Fiona Kobusingye-Boyne, a Ugandan leading the fight against malaria. Her experience has been far greater, and far more intimate, than mine. Listen to her, and try to put yourself in her place:

“For us, it is a devastating disease. As a little girl, I already suffered from malaria, as did my parents, sisters and brothers. Two of my sisters and my son died from the disease. Just last year, I lost my nephew, an active young boy 14 years old, to malaria. Another nephew died just months ago, as I myself lay stricken with my sickness in a different hospital. He was a brilliant and gifted 16 year-old, and the pride of our family. We miss him terribly.”

Every year, malaria kills millions of people around the world, and some 700 to 800 million more suffer its attacks — attacks that not only are excruciating but also prevent their working to provide for their families and lift themselves out of poverty.

What is most tragic of all is that none of this needs to be happening. The United States and most other developed countries eliminated malaria in the 1940s through 1960s by the generous use of DDT, the least expensive and most effective way to prevent mosquitoes from spreading the malaria parasite.

But because of grossly exaggerated claims of risks to birds, and completely false claims of links to human cancer, the U.S. banned DDT use in the 1970s, other countries and the United Nations soon followed suit, and they coerced developing nations to cease its use by tying it to foreign aid and trade.

The result? Over 50 million preventable deaths in the last four decades — every one of them presaged by excruciating pain for the doomed, and followed by grief for his friends and family.

That horrible, ongoing toll can be stopped. It can be stopped by resuming the use of DDT. Lightly spraying DDT on the indoor surfaces of homes and huts twice a year can almost eliminate the risk of malaria. It is far more effective than wearing insect repellant or using mosquito nets, and it is entirely safe for the environment.

You can join the effort to end malaria at StopMalariaNow.org, a consortium of non-governmental organizations in Africa and Europe that is leading the battle to restore indoor residual spraying of DDT, along with continued use of insecticide-treated bed nets, in sub-Saharan Africa.
E. Calvin Beisner is founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a network of theologians, pastors, ministry leaders, scientists, economists, and policy experts dedicated to bringing biblical worldview, theology, and ethics together with science and economics to promote 1) economic development for the very poor, 2) wise stewardship of environmental resources, and 3) the proclamation and defense of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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  • E. Calvin Beisner