Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the recent widespread outbreaks of the Zika virus to be an international public health emergency. The virus, nearly unknown in the West until this year, was first identified in eastern Africa, and had almost never been encountered outside the continent until 2007.
The American public likely knew less about it than even other tropical diseases because Zika fever’s symptoms include, according to WHO, “mild fever, skin rash (exanthema) and conjunctivitis” and subside within seven days. A mild disease endemic on the other side of the globe caused little concern in the United States.
Two facts changed that impression. First was the explosion of the disease outside its African home. The New York Times reported on its appearance in Micronesia in 2007, but that was the last mention for eight years, when it began to appear in a significant number of patients in Brazil in 2015.
The second change came with the simultaneous outbreak in Brazil of microcephaly in infants. Microcephaly, the medical term for having an abnormally small head, often results in severe brain damage. While no study has yet confirmed the link between Zika fever and microcephaly, the correlation has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recommend that pregnant women avoid traveling to areas known to have outbreaks of the disease.
Mothers Can Hide, Or We Can Revive DDT
The reaction was swift. Here at The Federalist, Katy French Talento gave some useful advice in “12 Tips To Stave Off The Zika Apocalypse“. Elsewhere, The New York Times asked “How Scared Should You Be About Zika?” FiveThirtyEight’s report (“Zika’s Not A Global Health Emergency — Its Potential Consequences Are”) was nuanced, but still tremulous.
Some concern is justified; the disease poses a serious threat to unborn children. Media reports suggest that scientists are hard at work on a vaccine, but until one is discovered and produced on a massive enough scale to inoculate the entire population, the only hope for pregnant mothers is seclusion from anyplace likely to contain mosquitos. In the United States, that’s a lot of places.
There is, of course, another option: attack the mosquitos that carry the disease. Mosquito repellants already exist, of course, but they are of varying effectiveness, as anyone who ever sat outside on a summer evening knows. In an article at Slate, Daniel Engber suggests more modern techniques involving genetic manipulation of the mosquitos to render them unable to reproduce. The possibility is intriguing, but also expensive, labor-intensive, and uncertain of success. Those limitations would acceptable if we did not already have a simple, cheap, and effective means of killing mosquitos that was first used effectively in 1939: DDT.
When DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was invented, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria still existed in the United States and other western nations. DDT quickly became a potent weapon against these diseases and, as a 2011 report from the Heritage Foundation notes, “applying DDT to mosquito-breeding pools and to the walls of homes almost completely eradicated malaria in Europe and the United States by the 1960s.” DDT was a scientific miracle, and the world was on its way to eradicating diseases responsible for the deaths of millions.
Enter the Science-Challenged Environmental Movement
In 1962, the environmental movement stepped in to ensure that the gains realized by the developed world would never be translated to the rest of the globe. That year, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published, and quickly became the instruction manual for the green movement.
As Bethany Mandel explained in these pages in 2014, “Carson’s book argued that DDT could be deadly for birds and, thus, should be banned. Incredibly and tragically, her recommendations were taken at face value and soon the cheap and effective chemical was discontinued, not only in the United States but also abroad.” Malaria had been conquered in the First World, but would be allowed to live on in the Third. Although Carson’s thesis has been widely challenged (see, for example, this analysis at JunkScience.com, with citations to scientific journals), it remains an article of faith on the green Left.
That it should do so is not surprising. Environmentalists in the developed world have long demanded that the world cease to do the things that brought wealth and advancement to advanced nations, even when the developing world has not had the chance to follow that same path. When America and Europe rose to prosperity on a mountain of coal, the only concern of the Left was that the miners be treated better. Now that China and India want to catch up, coal itself is evil and should be left in the ground forever.
Environmentalists Lie, People Die
So it is with mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria was declared eliminated in the United States in 1952, and faded from the popular mind. Carson’s demagoguery against DDT ten years later made the public choose between a disease they had no chance of catching at home and a chemical they were told was dangerous.
Malaria continued to infect millions around the world, but with the problem solved at home, our government gave into chemophobia and banned DDT in 1972. Other industrialized nations soon joined the United States. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika fever, among other mosquito-borne diseases, continue unabated—malaria alone had 214 million new cases in 2015, according to WHO.
The spread of Zika fever to the Western hemisphere, and potentially to the United States, changes the calculation. Environmentalists in this country have not had to question the DDT ban for many years. The harm of tropical diseases was confined to people they didn’t know and who lived far away in countries most Americans would never visit.
There have been occasional dissenters—during the West Nile virus scare in 2002, with the bedbug epidemic of the past few years—but no serious movement emerged to overturn the ban. This is not unexpected. West Nile, while dangerous, turned out not to be as deadly as feared. Bedbugs are harmful pests, but not life-threatening.
If Zika Hits Here, Pressure Will Spike
It is possible that the Zika outbreak will be similarly underwhelming. It could be that the incidents of microcephaly in Brazil are just an unfortunate coincidence. If not, though, we will see a dangerous epidemic spread across the country.
American environmentalists could close their eyes the costs of their actions when these diseases were striking down poor African and Asian children. When the damage strikes middle-class families in our own country, their willful blindness will be hard, if not impossible, to maintain. The choice to ban DDT was once easy to make if you were an environmentalist who never looked beyond your own backyard. Once our own neighbors are affected, once we can no longer ignore the suffering caused by these diseases abroad, the scales may balance differently.
It is important, too, to consider what a prenatal diagnosis of mental impairment means to an unborn child in the United States. According to a study published in Prenatal Diagnosis in 2012, two-thirds of all unborn babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in the United States were aborted. The risk of a Zika fever outbreak will not be limited to children having brain damage, but will inevitably lead to more babies being killed by abortion.
Before that happens, we must take a hard look at the ban on DDT. Millions around the globe have been sentenced to death because of the environmental movement in the industrialized nations. We should act before the results of that decision get any worse.