I stared weary-eyed at the glowing computer monitor as the next screen loaded. The words “Faculty/School – First Choice:” appeared next to a pull-down list of all the faculties I could apply to for my first year of undergraduate studies. Without a moment’s hesitation, I highlighted “Science” and moved on.
At the age of seventeen, I had concluded that the sciences held the answers to nearly everything. When high school philosophy and lit classes seemed to do nothing but raise more questions, I could rest assured that in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, there was always one and only one correct answer. On the daily news, politics and foreign affairs were always in a state of perpetual conflict while scientific research consistently yielded palpable progress. Astronomers discovered new stars, chemists discovered new compounds, and medical researchers discovered more ways to save lives. It was here, I thought, that I would make my own contributions to the world.
I remember my first day as an undergrad science student vividly. The first-year students from every faculty were gathered in the largest gym on campus and pitted against each other in a pep rally battle of intellectual superiority. As science students, we knew our place: sure we were seen as overly studious geeks, but eventually we would become the physicians, dentists, scientists and researchers that society respected. Our main rival was the equally gigantic faculty of arts, and there was no doubt in our minds what the “artsies” were all about. They were of course the bums that either didn’t have the marks to get into science or had no idea what else they wanted to do with their future. So there we were, the most enviable, pragmatic and promising students in the building. Or so I had thought.
Four years later, my blind confidence in the sciences has matured. I have come to understand its weaknesses, limitations, and ultimately its futility. Fellow science students who excel at their courses may know their field of study inside and out, but without the ability to place this knowledge in a wider context, their power to contribute to the global community is critically hindered. The scientific method has indeed yielded powerful innovations, but it is the people, their governments and policies that determine the final impact of these discoveries. This reality is painfully clear in the case of one of the world’s deadliest diseases facing developing nations: malaria. While scientists possess the means to control and contain this epidemic (the in form of DDT), the world watches as malaria continues to ravage the population at a rate of over a million each year.
DDT and the Frustrating Fight Against Malaria
In 1874, a German chemist by the name of Othmar Zeidler synthesized the first DDT molecule, formally known as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane. However, it wasn’t until 1939 that Swiss chemist Paul Müller realized just how powerful DDT was in fighting common pests. Winning the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work, Müller demonstrated that DDT exposure killed lice, fleas, mosquitoes and several other common arthropods with stunning efficiency. While the agricultural significance of Muller’s discovery should not be overlooked, the greatest impact of DDT was without doubt its crucial role in eliminating malaria (a deadly disease transmitted from one person to another via virus-carrying mosquitoes) from many parts of the world. Ambitious public health programs in the 1950’s and 1960’s utilized the heavy spraying of DDT to effectively eradicate malaria in the United States, Europe, and parts of South America. In fact, it was estimated that the spraying of DDT prevented 500 million deaths worldwide in those two decades alone (Edwards 2004).
In light of these accomplishments, it may seem that DDT is a prime example of scientific advancement at its best: a miracle compound that has essentially saved the lives of millions. Much to the contrary, however, “miracles” don’t usually come to mind when you mention “DDT” to the average person. Instead, most know DDT primarily as a poisonous pollutant, a widespread concern that was first sparked by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Often credited for pioneering the environmentalist movement, Silent Spring documented the sudden prevalence of DDT throughout local ecosystems. In particular, organisms higher up in the food chain exhibited unusual concentrations of the chemical, presumably due to the sustained presence of DDT in many of their prey (Edwards 2004). Furthermore, Carson claimed that DDT exposure was at least in part responsible for widespread decline in the population of certain bird species, such as the bald eagle and the brown pelican. Although the latter of these assertions are presently found to be highly questionable (Edwards 2004), the public outcry triggered by Carson’s book forever changed the way government policies perceived the chemical. In 1972, amid immense public pressure and in direct contradiction to the conclusions of investigative panels, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned DDT from use in the United States (Edwards 2004). DDT has subsequently been banned in many developed countries and efforts to eliminate its use have persisted to this day, as outlined in the Stockholm Convention of 2001.
Unfortunately, malaria, the disease that DDT effectively eliminated from the developed world several decades ago still plagues most of Africa and parts of South America. What’s more, these regions experience more than 300 million acute cases of malaria each year (WHO). Of these cases, at least one million result in deaths (WHO). The monstrosity that is the third world malaria epidemic is appalling, especially in the context of the twenty-first century, in a world that is constantly bragging about its superior technological capabilities and medical miracles.
Yet perhaps what is most disturbing about modern day cases of malaria is that the disease can be effectively combated by a tool that was discovered more than a century ago: DDT. Although the international community seems to agree that the environmental side-effects of the chemical pale in comparison to the deadly devastation of malaria, the stigma associated with DDT remains a powerful force in preventing its widespread use (Raloff 2000). While third world nations, especially those of Sub-Saharan Africa, receive a great deal of financial aid to combat malaria, many of the organizations that distribute this aid dictate that DDT cannot be purchased with these funds (Raloff 2000). The reasons behind such restrictive conditions are complex, but thorough lobbying by environmental groups against the use of DDT (despite the horrifying circumstances in Africa) has undoubtedly made its mark (Edwards 2004). In South America, where DDT has also proven to be effective against malaria outbreaks, the inadequate supply of the pesticide is due to another reason. The single DDT production facility in the western hemisphere, and thus the cheapest supply for South America, was located in Mexico but recently shut down due to lack of domestic demand (Raloff 2000). Malaria-infested countries such as Belize have thus lost their only feasible supply of DDT, an economic and logistical blip that has no doubt resulted in many needless deaths (Raloff 2000).
The rippling effects of the DDT controversy that started almost half a century ago have had daunting effects on modern day malaria control. Furthermore, the overall consequences of the disease do not end at the millions of lives that are being lost. The World Bank estimates that malaria causes over $12billion in lost productivity in Africa alone, further crippling what is already the world’s weakest economy (Boseley 2005). Thankfully, in what seems to be a glimmer of hope, politicians and mainstream media have taken aim at the issue. A recent non-partisan report released in the UK has called for renewed efforts to combat malaria and the use of all necessary means to such effect (Boseley 2005). Furthermore, prominent media entities such as the New York Times and Scientific American have also published a series of articles advocating a more widespread use of DDT to combat malaria (“DDT: A Symbol Gone Awry” 2005, Kristof 2005). While there are those who argue that many mosquito species have developed resistance to DDT and are thus unaffected, the success of DDT spraying in many developing countries has proven that it is at the least an effective tool in the small arsenal of options available in controlling this ravaging disease.
My Two Cents for Change
Admittedly, it is difficult for anyone to fully grasp the complex reasons behind the lingering yet powerful restrictions on DDT usage around the world. However, one thing seems to be clear: that “the biggest obstacle to progress at present is not a shortage of science, but a paucity of political will to deal with malaria” (Boseley 2005). As a scholar of the life sciences, it seems to me so unnecessary that such relatively trivial problems have prevented and continue to prevent millions of lives from being saved. Unfortunately, dilemmas such as that of DDT and malaria are not rare in today’s third world, where having the scientific means to save lives is often not enough. However, progress is being made and nations are continuously rising to the occasion in efforts to overcome the financial gaps, administrative impasses, and political taboos that have allowed devastation to ravage developing nations for far too long. In this context, it is needless to say that the scientific purist has no place. Without a grasp of history, politics, and the humanities, one cannot hope to understand many of the complex problems that the world faces, much less begin to find solutions. The role of the effective and influential intellectual is thus not only to have a thorough knowledge of his or her own discipline but to also be able to place such knowledge in a wider, interdisciplinary context.
(Image by Jane Wang)