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Wellcome Film of the Month: The Sardinian Project (1949)

8 Mar, 2013

Our film of the month for March is The Sardinian project (1949), which is about how malaria was eradicated from the island just after the Second World War.

The history of malaria runs in parallel with the most recent 10,000 years of human civilisation; malaria has a symbiotic relationship with population migration and the development of agriculture. Sardinia, a pretty Mediterranean island and to many a popular holiday destination, lies almost equidistant between the Italian and Tunisian coasts and had a reputation from ancient times of being an “unhealthy” island. In 1946, malaria was endemic and, according to the film, 21 per cent of the population was affected with children disproportionately so – as has been the experience of other malaria-ridden areas in Africa and Asia to this day.

Immediately after the war, the adult population was being decimated by the disease and arresting recovery. The geography of Sardinia exacerbated matters; 10,000+ square miles of mountainous terrain, trees cut down for charcoal and the draining of marshland for agriculture to promote agriculture the pre-war, which had been encouraged by the Fascist government. Unfortunately, with the population settling in the malaria-affected areas, this created an ideal vector for the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The disease was carried by the Anopheles labranchiae mosquito, which inhabited these areas. The female of this genus of mosquito was the carrier of the malaria parasite and the major vector of malaria in Southern Italy until its surprisingly recent and complete eradication in the 1970s. The reason why the disease took so long to eradicate was that, as the war reached its end, the German armed forces retreating from Southern Italy flooded tracts of land, which encouraged the wide spread distribution of the mosquito larva.

The Second World War accelerated scientific research in many areas. In 1939, a Swiss scientist, Paul Hermann Müller, discovered that a chemical compound discovered in the 1870s, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), had insecticidal qualities. For his discovery he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The new and exciting wonder chemical was used freely during the war years to eradicate all kinds of unpleasant insects and bugs with no knowledge of its many potential harmful side-effects or any sense of lasting ecological damage. It was used to control typhus, malaria and dengue fever with spectacular results. Sardinia, with its pressing economic and social needs was an ideal testing ground for the large scale eradication of the disease. In the closing moments of the film, a question is posed; can a continental area be cleared of malaria? The film is in the form of an interim report on its progress and we can assume that the audience was meant to say resoundingly, “yes”.

DDT

This film was produced in co-operation with Erlass by the Shell Petroleum Company and made by Nucleus Film Unit for a professional audience. ERLAAS is an Italian acronym equivalent to ‘The Regional Body for the Fight against Anopheles in Sardinia’. The Sardinia DDT campaign started in 1946 with detailed surveys by two entomologists Drs Aitkin and Cassini. Even though they had very rudimentary resources to survey specimens (checking them in a makeshift laboratory in their hotel bedroom), they managed to secure the participation of  the Rockefeller Foundation  and £1.25 million for the project (a further £1.25 million was required to complete the task).

Over a two year period, meetings and committees were organised, and scouts and chief scouts were recruited to survey the island and analyse the findings. The details of the eradication are what make the film so compelling. In order to achieve the “all out” eradication programme, 5 per cent DDT had to be mixed in an oil and water emulsion (which would sit on the surface of the water and prevent the mosquitoes laying their eggs); it also killed other pests and in consequence proved very popular with the local population. There is extraordinary footage of the interiors of thatched rooms being  sprayed and out-houses with animals in; none with any protection. DDT signs were then stencilled on the outside. High buildings such as churches were fogged out – literally filled with fumes and children crowded in the doorways looking on. Later tests were made to establish the amount of DDT remaining on any surface. Ancient buildings were also sprayed including bell towers. Spraying and testing were continuous; a  DDT ‘bomb’ was invented for inaccessible places such as wells. With constant spraying of the lowlands by aircraft sent to attack larvae ­– which could be harboured by reeds – fishermen complained about their fish being killed. According to the film, this was being investigated.

DDT was withdrawn in the US in 1972. Due to indiscriminate spraying and its widespread use as a pesticide, there are now DDT-resistant strains of mosquito, although there is no immediate threat of malaria returning to Europe. However, in Africa and the developing World, malaria is a devastating killer of young children. These days, strategies to conquer the disease have changed and the provision of bednets could drastically reduce childhood mortality by preventing children from being bitten. However, the costs for people already living in poverty can be prohibitive. One of the fundraising initiatives for Red Nose Day  this year (15 March) will be to focus attention on raising money to provide bednets for the people who need them.

There are two other of titles in Wellcome Film showing the use of DDT:

For more information about the Sardinian Project see:

Tognotti E. Program to eradicate malaria in Sardinia, 1946–1950. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2009 Sep [date cited].

Angela Saward

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 Mar, 2013 6:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Broken_Heart Blog and commented:
    Brilliant little piece of history from Welcome Institute.

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