Tobacco giant sparks malaria row

Johannesburg, October 8 :

Cigarette giant British American Tobacco (BAT) is leading a campaign to stop Uganda from joining one of Africa’s most lauded efforts to date to control the blight of malaria.

Uganda has more than 12 million cases of malaria every year, killing 110,000 people, mostly children and pregnant women, and encouraged by the success of other African countries in controlling malaria, the Ugandan government is preparing to spray the walls of homes with a weak solution of DDT to kill the disease-carrying anopheles mo-squitoes. Yet BAT, in a coalition with many other corporations in Uganda, has called for a delay to the spraying programme, warning that the use of DDT could threaten lucrative exports of tobacco, coffee, cut flowers and other agricultural products.

The group says exports worth more than $400 million and 600,000 Ugandan jobs could be lost if DDT is found to contaminate the export crops. The companies have urged the Kampala government to carry out further studies on the use of DDT and to use of alternative methods, although they have been found to be ineffective against malaria in other African countries.

The controversial DDT has recently been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and other major public health groups as an effective and safe chemical to use against malaria. Catherine Armstrong, spokesperson for BAT in London, said BAT does not oppose the use of DDT. “A consortium of 52 companies in Uganda, including BAT, issued a statement which outlined the potential negative and economically damaging impact of the use of DDT,” she said.

“The group of companies asks that the government to put in place measures to make sure that crops do not get contaminated. Crops stored inside family huts could be contaminated. If agricultural exports are rejected from the EU, the US and Australia, this would be disastrous for the economy and jobs.”

Anti-malaria activists are furious with BAT and the other companies in Uganda. They say many countries, including Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and South Africa have used DDT for decades against malaria without the rejection of exports.

South Africa offers a good example of the effectiveness of spraying homes with the DDT solution. In 1996 the South African government stopped using DDT and replaced it with synthetic pyrethroid insecticides. The country almost immediately plummeted into one of its worst ever malaria epidemics — from around 6000 cases in 1995 to over 60 000 in 2000. In early 2000, South Africa reintroduced DDT to control malaria in KwaZulu-Natal Province and introduced new malaria therapies. The combination of effective insecticides and drugs ensured that malaria cases fell by almost 80 per cent by the end of 2001.

Richard Tren, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, called BAT ‘hypocritical and callous’ for its stand in Uganda. “It is unbelievable that a company like BAT, which sells products known to cause cancer, would oppose DDT. Decades of evidence have proved it can save millions of lives. That BAT would oppose DDT in this way is not only foolish, it is deadly and represents a truly shameful episode in the company’s history.”