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July 27, 2008

Malawi's tobacco industry unhappy with DDT spraying against malaria

A protracted war of ideas is brewing in Malawi between health authorities and the big tobacco industry over the former's plans to re-in troduce a pesticide, Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT), as a way of controlling the spread of the killer disease, malaria.

Like in most parts of Africa, malaria is the biggest killer in Malawi, especially among pregnant women and children under the age of five.

According to the Manager of the National Malaria Control Programme, Dr. Storn Kabuluzi, there are at least 4 million reported cases of malaria in the country every year. "Out of these, we record no fewer than 7,000 deaths on the average every year, mostly of pregnant women and children under the age of five," Kabuluzi said.

As a way of checking the spread of the disease, health ministers in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region (of which Malawi is a member) agreed to re-introduce DDT to control the breeding of mosquitoes that carry the disease parasites.

However, some years after the decision was taken, Malawi is yet to re-introduce DDT, as the all-powerful tobacco industry is jittery.

Felix Mkumba, Secretary General of the Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) - an association that looks after the interests of tobacco growers in Malawi, said re-introducing DDT in the country would affect the industry. "The suggestion to re-introduce DDT in Malawi did not go down well with us because it has serious implication on the industry," he said.

DDT was banned in many countries but after careful research by the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was found to be safe.

According to Mkumba, major buyers of Malawi tobacco, like the United States of America and Germany, do not want the leaf to be contaminated with DDT, adding that any trace of DDT in Malawi tobacco - no matter how insignificant - will result in cancellation of million of dollars worth of orders. "Now you know the implications of such a scenario," he said.

The repercussions will indeed be dire, as according to figures from the Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) - the industry's regulatory authority - an average of about US$ 340 million is realised from tobacco sales every year in Malawi, making tobacco contribute over 75 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

Over and above that, tobacco contributes about 23 per cent of all tax collections in Malawi as well as about 30 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. To cap it all, more than 80 per cent of Malawians are employed directly or indirectly in the tobacco industry.

TCC General Manager Godfrey Chapola said the statistics made tobacco a crop too delicate to tamper with. "Tobacco is the engine of Malawi's economy," he summed up.

The Director of Reproductive Health Services, Dr. Chisale Mhango, said discussions were still on-going with health authorities, trying to impress upon their agriculture counterparts that there was much ado about nothing when it comes to the re-introduction of DDT in Malawi.

"The SADC ministers of health agreed that we should use DDT for in-door spraying to prevent the spread of malaria," Mhango said, emphasising that chances of the pesticide getting into contact with tobacco would be very minimal, if at all.

Mhango said South Africa and the US had used the pesticide to control the breeding of mosquitoes and the results had been impressive, adding that apart from being effective, DDT was also cheap. "DDT has been found to be comparatively a cheaper way of checking the disease," he said.

However, while agreeing that DDT may be cheaper in the short-term, Mkumba of TAMA said its long-term consequences on Malawi as a whole may not be as attractive. "Our point is that, yes DDT could be cheaper but it will be costly because what it can do is to trigger some negative effects in the economy, like where our tobacco has been traced with cross-contamination of DDT, then we just lose a big market," Mkumba said.

So the debate rages on, with economic issues weighed against health concerns.

Meanwhile, as the country's economy surges ahead, courtesy of tobacco, a pregnant woman and an under-five boy are breathing their last somewhere in Malawi, succumbing to malaria they might not have caught had DDT been allowed to join the battle against the disease known to comparatively kill more people than the more fabled HIV/AIDS.

Malaria Officer at the National Malaria Control Programme, Austin Albert Gumbo, said more than 40 per cent of all hospital admissions in the country were malaria-related.

According to Gumbo, "malaria kills more people than any other disease in Malawi, " adding "the high risk groups are pregnant women and children under the age of five."

That notwithstanding, the Ministry of Agriculture is still unwilling to risk the market of the country's only 'gold' with DDT.

Threat of death by malaria or not, in Malawi, tobacco is a sacred leaf.

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