The mosquito’s bite has led to many catastrophes throughout human history. At the same time, we have learned much about combatting them and saved millions of lives. But can we finally win this war? For World Mosquito Day, we take a look at the history and current state of the fight. If you’re a visual person, make sure to take a look at our full infographicillustrating the story.
The mosquito is the world’s deadliest creature, indirectly killing over one millionpeople every year. Evidence suggests that mosquitoes have been carrying parasites as far back as 45 million years ago. The insect’s ability to adapt has helped spread many diseases, such as the well-known malaria and yellow fever, neglected tropical diseases like dengue and lymphatic filariasis, and Zika, one of the latest global health emergencies. No other species has had such a long battle with the human race as this tiny insect.
Ancient period until 1600s
In ancient times, people regarded the mosquito as a mere nuisance. They learned to useprimitive repellents made of local plant extracts, mud and fruits and created smoke by burning herbs to keep the bug away. The Romans applied vinegar to the head and feet to repel insects and burned oregano and black cumin. Inhabitants on the Solomon Islands burned coconut and papaya leaves.
Three and a half millennia ago, Egyptians suffered and died from malaria. They also had symptoms matching those of other mosquito-borne diseases such as lymphatic filariasis and Japanese encephalitis. Of these, none was deadlier than malaria. The earliest historical record describing human association with the disease can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians (around 1550 B.C.) and ancient Greeks (around 413 B.C.). Famous victims who contracted malaria include King Tutankhamun of Egypt and Alexander the Great of the Ancient Greek kingdom. However, people believed that ‘bad air’ – in Medieval Latin, ‘mala aria’ – caused malaria, not mosquitoes.
1700s-1800s: Misunderstood but deadly diseases
More outbreaks of mosquito-borne epidemics occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ‘Age of Exploration.’ As explorers broadened their world to new lands, they brought home new knowledge, cultures, plants, animals and unfortunately, infectious diseases. They also left behind new diseases.
Through colonization, the slave trade and deforestation, malaria, yellow fever and dengue rapidly spread from Africa to other regions. Meanwhile, the first anti-malarial treatment, quinine, was brought to Europe from Peru in the 1630s. Many lives were saved. Still, the connection between mosquitoes and disease were not understood.
The impact of malaria worsened during the first attempt to build the Panama Canal in 1881. Tens of thousands of workers fell ill or died from yellow fever and malaria during the course of canal construction. A massive number of deaths increased panic and fear, to both employers and many government leaders. Around the same time, manyEuropeans began to associate good health with cleanliness. Extensive sanitary campaigns were launched. Improved public sanitation meant mosquitoes could not breed as easily and malaria and yellow fever began to reduce.
1900s: Discovery breakthrough, the war and battlefield
After living with these poorly understood diseases for centuries, a critical causal relationship was finally revealed as the world entered the 20th century. In 1897, a young British scientist, Ronald Ross, proved the link between transmission of the malaria parasite and mosquitoes. This was a confirmation of Albert Freeman Africanus King’s hypothesis of twenty years earlier. Three years after Ross’s research, mosquitoes were also found to transmit yellow fever (Walter Reed) and lymphatic filariasis (George Carmichael Low).
These discoveries represented great breakthroughs. Finally, the world began to realize that this tiny creature is not just an annoyance, but a vector of death. The war with mosquitoes began.
Following Ross’s discovery, entomologists worldwide begin to plot military-style attacks against the mosquito. A vaccine for yellow fever was developed, along with new anti-malaria medicines (e.g. chloroquine, artemisinin, mefloquine). Insecticide spray was introduced and insecticide-treated bed nets and other innovative mosquito repellent devices were invented.
2000s: New challenges
As the 1900s gave way to a new millennium, good news from the mosquito frontline was tempered with new challenges. While many strategies were deployed throughout the world and humans seemed to be gaining momentum in this fight, world travel has opened up wider possibilities for vectors to move across countries and continents. Climate change has furthered the spread of some mosquito-borne diseases, as rising temperatures expand to settings amenable to the vector.
Another problem has been the rise of additional mosquito-borne disease. Zika and Chikungunya were first detected in Ugandan forests and have since spread from there. Severe outbreaks of dengue occurred in Southeast Asia and became the leading cause of death among children in the region.
The fight continues
Today, rapid developments in technology and scientific research have provided a new arsenal. Last year, the first dengue vaccine was approved and authorized for use in three endemic countries: Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. Global malaria control has been noted as one of the great public health success stories with death rates decreasing by 60% since 2000, translating into 6.2 million lives saved.
Early this year, the World Health Organization also announced that Europe is now free of malaria with the number of cases in this region dropping from almost 91,000 in 1995 to zero in 2015. This is a significant and symbolic achievement in the global battle against the disease. Other technologies are also being developed, such as genetically modified male mosquitoes and a trial of the insect bacterium Wolbachia.
Despite progress, new challenges have arisen. An emerging outbreak of Zika in Brazil is rightly causing public alarm. Health authorities are warning that no nation should drop their guard on basic mosquito prevention and control.
In this long fight, we need all leaders to continue their support for strengthening health systems, monitoring and surveillance, universal health care and basic diagnosis schemes. We also need donors to advocate for political and financial mobilization as well as new research and technology development. We need civil societies to play their part in capacity-building and sustainable community outreach. Finally, citizens must become informed about means of protection against mosquito-borne diseases, adopting and advocating for these preventative measures. A future free of mosquito-borne diseases will only be realized if we take concerted action today.
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