This year’s big news for Africa might not be about Darfur or debt forgiveness, but instead about the alarming comeback of bedbugs in New York City, as the New York Times recently reported. To see what New York entomology has to do with Africa, turn the clock back a half-century. Americans and Europeans back then had to put up with bedbugs—tiny, irritating pests, nearly impossible to get rid of, that emerged nightly to feast on human blood. Bedbugs weren’t really dangerous, but they were a nasty nuisance, leaving itchy welts wherever they fed. After World War II, the U.S. eradicated the bedbug plague, thanks to the highly effective pesticide DDT. Far more important, DDT also killed lice, which transmitted typhus, and mosquitoes, which transmitted malaria. Though some insects evolved to resist it, DDT freed the developed world from these lethal diseases, as well as from the inconvenience of bedbug bites.
The undeveloped world hasn’t been so lucky. It’s not that DDT is expensive (it isn’t) but that USAID, the government agency that leads our efforts to fight malaria overseas, doesn’t pay for DDT spraying. “From a purely technical point of view in terms of effective methods of addressing malaria,” the agency claims, “USAID and others have not seen DDT as a high priority component of malaria programs.” It’s a hard statement to swallow, considering how effective DDT was at killing malarial mosquitoes here.
It’s much likelier that USAID refuses to fund DDT spraying out of environmental worries. Environmentalists, after all—inspired by Rachel Carson’s extremely influential Silent Spring, which made the alarmist case against DDT in 1962—have managed to get the pesticide banned in the U.S., calling it, among other things, one of “the world’s deadliest poisons.” That’s an overstatement, to say the least. Certainly, DDT is deadly to bugs. There’s some evidence, too, that it may affect the reproduction of certain birds, whose eggs may develop thinner shells from DDT exposure. But test after test has shown that DDT isn’t dangerous to humans.
If only you could say the same about Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other environmentalist groups inflaming DDT fears. In Africa, where roughly 90 percent of the world’s 2.5 million annual malaria deaths occur, might not concerns about avian reproduction take a backseat to concerns about human survival? In Hamlet, the Danish prince marvels that soldiers will risk death “even for an eggshell”—that being, presumably, the most worthless object Shakespeare could think of. Yet eggshells are why environmentalists are risking death—other people’s, of course.
When their own comfort’s at stake, though, you can bet that environmentalists won’t be so squeamish. That’s why New York’s bedbug resurgence—occurring in luxury hotels and Park Avenue residences as well as in less ritzy neighborhoods—is good news for Africa. Manhattanites won’t tolerate the DDT ban if it means being bitten at night, and they’ll make that clear to Washington politicians, for whom the liberal Upper East Side is the country’s top source of political contributions. If DDT makes a triumphant return to America, odds are that USAID will start funding it in Africa, too, no matter what environmentalists have said in the past. And that means a major victory over the bloodsucking parasites. I refer, of course, to the bedbugs and mosquitoes.