Zika: Is DDT An Answer?

Editor’s Note: This week we will highlight 5 takes on whether or not DDT should be used to combat the Zika virus, from the new issue of Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health Magazine. Read the complete set here.

DDT isn’t just a public health technology, it’s a symbol. What it symbolizes depends on one’s values—which is easier to see by looking to the past than the present. When we “banned” DDT in the ’70s, the pesticide symbolized human hubris and technology out of control to its foes; to its defenders, it represented humankind’s power to eliminate starvation and disease through science. Is DDT an answer to Zika today? For those with one set of values, yes; for those with another, no. No individual can answer this question, only a society, as its values and prevailing worldview tip the balance in favor of DDT’s known benefits—or its real and potential risks.

—Elena Conis, PhD, is a historian of public health and medicine at Emory University, the 2015–2016 Cain Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the author of Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization.

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