Bob Bestler

This book serves as a reminder that swatting a mosquito could save someone’s life

Be forewarned: There’s a new book about mosquitoes and if you read it you may never want to go outside again.

Written by historian Timothy C. Winegard, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator” examines how this tiny insect, generally seen as no more than a backyard pest, has over the millenia killed more people than any other single cause — 52 billion of us, to be exact, about half of all humans who ever lived.

He calls them “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”

There was, for instance, Scotland’s 1698 expedition to colonize Panama and unite two oceans. The 1,200 colonists experienced mosquitoes for the first time and more than half died within weeks; the survivors fled for home.

The expense of the mission drove Scotland into debt and led to unification with England. It was, writes Winegard, the birth of Great Britain.

Napoleon used mosquito-borne malaria as a weapon of war, killing 4,000 British soldiers after breaching dikes to create a brackish flood and an epidemic. “We must oppose the English with nothing but fever, which will devour them all,” he declared.

A German missionary, visiting the United States, was referring to mosquitoes when he wrote that the South was “in the spring a paradise, in the summer a hell and in the autumn a hospital.”

Those are words most of us in this part of the country can understand. It’s why we screened in a wraparound porch in McClellanville and why a friend built his home three stories high — beyond reach of those pesky critters.

Winegard says humans lived with mosquitoes for thousands of years before they realized the lethal impact of their bite. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that scientists discovered that malaria was caused by these flying insects, not by “bad air.”

We’re seeing a bit of mosquitoes’ deadly impact right now. Seven cases and three deaths in Michigan from eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) has prompted health officials to warn residents to curtail outdoor activities in these remaining days of summer.

The deadly virus has also been reported in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

The Center for Disease Control says normally the U.S. experiences seven cases of EEE annually; this year has already seen 20 cases.

Historically, it’s pretty small potatoes and living, as we do, in a rich, temperate world of insecticides and drained swamps, we give little thought to mosquito-born disease. Winegard says that casual attitude could change as the world continues to shrink through globalization and climate change.

Even today, he writes, the insects are killing some 800,000 people a year, mostly in Africa. And a recent study “estimates that within the next 50 years, a billion more people could be exposed to mosquito-borne infections than are today.”

Try to remember that the next time you swat a mosquito. You’re not killing one of God’s creatures, you’re saving your neighbor.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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