- By Siddhartha MahantaSiddhartha Mahanta is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. In recent years, he has written on everything from national politics to the telecommunications industry, big agriculture, foreign lobbying, corporate welfare, and film, for publications including The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Washington City Paper, among others. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour.
The portions of this post that cite quotes from Ron Paul and purport to paraphrase his beliefs about DDT and Ebola came from a press release sent by Paul’s organization, Voices for Liberty. A transcript later sent by the same organization show that the initial press release mischaracterized some of Paul’s words and positions, leading to several errors in the article. More specifically, while Paul said that he believed the threat posed by Ebola was overstated, he also acknowledged in his speech that "it’s a very, very serious illness" that is "quite deadly." In addition, the article quoted Paul describing DDT "as a viable alternative for treatment" of Ebola. Those words came from his organization’s press release, not from the former congressman. The errors led to the article being overly dismissive of the former congressman’s beliefs.
Once-and-future libertarian champion, self-declared "former" physician, and former veteran lawmaker Ron Paul has weighed in on Ebola. The good news: the virus poses no risk to America, as he announced in a video on voicesofliberty.com (or his "digital bully pulpit," as the Texan calls it). Then again, "governments deceive us and sometimes they hype things," Paul warns. Fair enough.
So Paul proposes his own "viable alternative for treatment": the controversial insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT, regarded as a legitimate means of controlling mosquito-born diseases such as malaria. But for decades there’s also been a heated debate over just how bad DDT is for humans and the environment, sparked by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The U.S. banned DDT for agricultural use in 1972; in 2004, the Stockholm Convention restricted its use to disease control.
Dr. Paul pooh-poohs such science. "The absolute proof of the danger of DDT was never — as far as I’m concerned — proven," the father of Sen. Rand Paul says. Instead, our treatment of choice for Ebola is "very expensive organic phosphates," that kill people, he claims. "If DDT isn’t quite as dangerous as they said, and if you could save a million people from this illness … then we could think about it." Paul has a theory for why the global health community would be pushing these organic phosphates. "Could there be a possibility … there’s a profit in this[?] Maybe that is the reason that we end up doing this."
How do Paul’s Ebola claims stack up to Ebola science?
"As far as I can make out he’s wrong about everything," Fordham University’s Dr. Alexander van Tulleken told Foreign Policy. No licensed or approved treatment for Ebola exists. Yes, the experimental ZMapp drug seems to have effectively treated two American aid workers transported from Liberia to Atlanta, and more such untested drugs are in development. But those patients have also benefited from expert care, van Tulleken notes, so the jury’s still out. "The only treatments for Ebola really are supportive care" such as ventilation to support lung failure, dialysis for kidney failure or fluid replacement via IV.
As for Paul’s claims about DDT and organic phosphates, neither is an actual treatment nor control mechanism for Ebola. While some in the public health community view DDT as a legitimate solution for slowing malaria, there’s no science that says it would cure or control Ebola.
"What Ron Paul has done is confuse Ebola with malaria," van Tulleken says. "If you hose DDT around, you get rid of the mosquitoes, and maybe get rid of malaria. But Ebola is transmitted by bodily fluid. He’s really fucked it up."
Organo-phosphates — the actual term — can be very toxic and are used to kill insects and weeds and as poisons. But there are no known organo-phosphate drugs for fighting Ebola, as Paul alleged.
Paul’s implication that a nefarious medical-industrial plutocratic cabal is pushing an organo-phosphate cure to profit from Ebola doesn’t withstand scrutiny. "The reason we have no treatment for this virus and no vaccine is there’s absolutely no money to be made at all," van Tulleken says, affirming what the World Health Organization decried and journalists reported this week. It’s a disease that kills poor, non-white people, after all. So far, the current outbreak has killed approximately a thousand people. "If you were to compare that to malaria, malaria has killed more people than anything else in human history. And even malaria, we don’t care about that much…. If there was a profit motive, like there is in treating heartburn, baldness, erectile dysfunction, we’d have a drug."
So instead it’s left to that other Paulian bogeyman to tackle the gravest public-health threats: the federal government. Indeed, much of the funding for the now-expedited development of experimental vaccines such as ZMapp is coming from the National Health Institutes and Defense Department. That’s not the most reassuring news to people wary of government intrusion like Ron Paul.
Fellow physician, political figure, government skeptic, presidential aspirant, and son of Paul, Sen. Rand Paul (an opthamologist and not a general physician like his father, so no expert on Ebola), has not yet commented on his father’s remarks. If he does, we’ll update accordingly.
Meanwhile, also on Thursday: "out of an abundance of caution" surrounding the Ebola outbreak, the State Department also ordered all eligible family members to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Cure or no cure, the situation grows more dire by the day.
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.| Passport |