Sardinia and the History of Malaria

sardinia ddt markings pictureIf you’re walking through a city or village in Sardinia, you’ll likely see stencils that seem to indicate the existence of DDT. Once you spot one, you’ll see them everywhere. Even on old doors to rural storerooms that haven’t been painted since the second world war.

These stencils do indeed refer to DDT, and an anti-malaria program that was quite ambitious. Some say too ambitious.

Rockefeller Foundation’s Sardinian Project (1946-51) utilized 32,000 DDT workers to spray 10,000 tons of DDT mixture over an area the size of New Hampshire, finally liberating the island of malaria. The environmental implications were enormous. ~ The Rockefeller Foundation in Sardinia: Pesticide Politics in the Struggle Against Malaria

In the case of this location along Cagliari’s Via Roma as shown in the picture, the area was sprayed with DDT in 1948.

Although the project’s aim was to eliminate the mosquitoes that carry malaria, that objective was never reached. Malaria was eliminated from the island nevertheless.

Malaria was thought to come to Sardinia with the Carthaginian conquest of Sardinia in 502 BC. The wetlands of the southern plains were ideal for mosquito habitat, and the problem persisted through the Roman period. Romans rewarded their fighting elite with plots of land in these malarial plains as a parting gift, and eventually many of the swamps were drained and Malaria kept at bay as old generals made do with what they had. Sardinia, specifically the campidano plain, became Rome’s breadbasket.

After the Roman era, malaria became endemic during the medieval period, and persisted until recent times, when the Fascist government instituted a land reclamation project which used modern technology on a large scale for drainage and sanitation. This program and the availability of quinine to treat the disease caused Malaria numbers to decline significantly, the number of reported cases dropping to 88 in 1940.

But the war not only ended these programs, but some wartime tactics exacerbated the problem; German troops flooded a large area to hinder the movement of the Allied Armed Forces, for example, causing Malaria cases to soar—in 1946, 74,600 malaria cases and 169 deaths were reported.

And so this enormous project in which houses and the ancient stone towers called nuraghi where sprayed in addition to extensive and concentrated spraying in remote wetland areas (where donkeys were needed when jeeps couldn’t get to them).

The success of the program didn’t deter detractors.

Sheepherders, fish farmers, and beekeepers blamed their dead sheep, dead fish, and dead bees on DDT spraying. Other villagers maintained that malaria fevers derived from pestilential waters, not mosquitoes, and so were reluctant to let sprayers into their homes, especially when house flies that once died (the most immediate benefit of spraying) acquired pesticide resistance. Local health experts and politicians also complained that the project focused too much on mosquitoes and not enough on the disease, sometimes faulting “American” methods over tried-and-tested “Italian” methods. After the project’s first director quit, secretly claiming that mosquito extermination over such an extensive area was an impossible task, the next director orchestrated a final all-out campaign before declaring malaria success while admitting mosquito defeat, and then beating a hasty retreat out of Sardinia.

Perhaps simple spraying of the houses and draining of the swamps would have been sufficient. As the results indicate, it wasn’t at all necessary to kill all the mosquitoes to eliminate Malaria.

What’s interesting is there is an online digital archive that has many pictures of the activities at the time.

Cagliari. Preparazione delle palle larvicide di DDT, 1948
Trasporto di bidoni di DDT su un asino, 1950
Disinfestazione all’interno di una casa, 1950

This post is drawn from the paper linked above and another authored by one more sympathetic to the program, Eugenia Tognotti: Program to Eradicate Malaria in Sardinia, 1946–1950

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Sardinia and the History of Malaria originally appeared on , updated: Apr 20, 2022 © .

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