Do malaria interventions cause human suffering through population growth?

041614_1200_Theimpactof3People often ask me this. I mostly find the question annoying since a dead kid is, well, a dead kid.

The thinking, however, isn’t entirely illogical and can, of course, even be traced back to Malthus himself. Malthus believed that helping the poor would only increase their misery through worsening conditions of crowding and starvation. If Malthus had lived in 2013 and were concerned with welfare policy, he’d probably be a card carrying member of the Republican Party.

For the record, I despise Malthus (and his spawn, Paul Ehrlich). I can’t think of a more cynical and heartless thinker. It’s disturbing to me that his ideas continue to permeate today, despite being wrong at best and simply hateful, at worst. More disturbing is how eagerly his ideas are absorbed by even otherwise well meaning people.

“It’s obvious,” I’ve heard people say while implicitly suggesting the some lives (ours) are worth more than others (theirs). As cliched as it may sound, I think that every human has both a right to live and the right to a life that is healthy and meaningful. Not saving kids from malaria compromises the ability to do either.

So far, though, no one really knows whether life saving interventions in developing countries fuel population growth. Does saving a child’s life simply increase the number of mouths to feed, thereby straining resources and insuring misery for everyone? David Roodman, a public policy consultant working on behalf of GiveWell, a group which does analyses on the effectiveness of charity programs, has searched the published literature to find the answer.

I think the best interpretation of the available evidence is that the impact of life-saving interventions on fertility and population growth varies by context, above all with total fertility, and is rarely greater than 1:1. In places where lifetime births/woman has been converging to 2 or lower, family size is largely a conscious choice, made with an ideal family size in mind, and achieved in part by access to modern contraception. In those contexts, saving one child’s life should lead parents to avert a birth they would otherwise have. The impact of mortality drops on fertility will be nearly 1:1, so population growth will hardly change.

He goes through the available data and finds evidence to suggest that averted child deaths are associated with a decrease in the number of births over the lifetime of a woman. This is somewhat non-controversial. It has long been noticed that economic development and increased access to medical care is associated with decreased lifetime fertility.

Where things become controversial is in the case of developing countries, where saving a child’s life might not have the same effect on reducing births overall. This might be true in the short term, and Roodman finds evidence to suggest this. A short term reduction in child mortality might not yield immediate results.

The issue might be more nuanced, however. Merely providing malaria interventions such as insecticide treated nets to prevent disease without increasing access to quality health services might lead to a situation where population increases quite rapidly. I would think that this might explain why some of the most malarious countries in the world are experience the most rapid population growth. Malawi would be an example.

The strategy, then, is incomplete and Roodman’s analysis might suggest that we need to take a holistic approach to include both malaria prevention and reproductive health services.

I would, however, suggest that the problem is more complicated, particularly when reflecting on Kenya, where the most effective method of reducing fertility has probably been the imposition of school fees. The issue then isn’t merely a matter of saving kids and Depo shots, it’s also a matter of finances. If people can’t afford kids, they won’t have them, but the only way to arrive at economic barriers to reproduction is to have an economy, which is exactly what a country like Malawi doesn’t have.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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