Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Mosquitoes must die

Published:Saturday | October 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal

One of the earliest jokes I heard, way back in the days of 'pitch-oil' or kerosene lamps and candles, going to school barefoot and burning 'cockset' or mosquito coils and smelling the pyrethrum thick and heavy, was about this quick-witted little boy whose teacher asked him to spell 'mosquito', and he replied quickly, "Teacher, that small thing you want me to spell? Why not give me something bigger like 'dog', 'cat' or even 'lion'?"

In terms of the damage it has done, can do, is doing now and will continue to do, the mosquito might actually deserve its 'big' name and certainly is the real heavyweight among the fierce creatures. During Mosquito Week in April this year, Bill Gates asked, "What would you say is the most dangerous animal on earth? Sharks? Snakes? Humans?" A lot of people would have said, "None of the above," and answered "Bill Gates," whose predatory practices in the software business made him both super wealthy and feared.

Gates left himself out and proposed, "Of course, the answer depends on how you define dangerous. Personally, I've had a thing about sharks since the first time I saw 'Jaws'. But if you're judging by how many people are killed by an animal every year, then the answer isn't any of the above. It's mosquitoes. When it comes to killing humans, no other animal even comes close." Not Josef Stalin, not Adolf Hitler, not even Genghis Khan. Sharks kill about 10 people a year, tapeworms about 2,000, snakes kill about 50,000, humans roughly 475,000 and rising, if the Trinidad police have their way, but mosquitoes eliminate or terminate, in some cases like dengue, chikungunya and malaria with extreme prejudice, about 725,000 people if Gates is right.

However, the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute says that malaria alone causes more than 500 million infections a year and more than one million deaths. There are about 700 million people infected by mosquito-related diseases every year.

It is easy, especially given how tiny the creatures are, to consider them harmless. Sure, they are a nuisance, and this is what most people think, but a serious health threat of such immense proportions? No way.

This is what some Jamaicans think. According to Erica Virtue, a senior Gleaner writer, in the September 28 edition of the paper, "Scores of Jamaicans brought to their knees by chikungunya-like symptoms have dismissed medical and scientific explanations that the virus is being spread by mosquitoes. Many, including highly educated Jamaicans, are swearing on their aching joints that they were not bitten by any mosquitoes, yet they have been stricken by the illness. 'I believe that it is an airborne virus, which is easily contracted. I have long since dismissed the thought that it is caused by mosquitoes. Do these mosquitoes take buses or taxis to other parishes?' declared Portland resident Annmarie Bennett."

extreme reactions

Ms Virtue quotes other Jamaicans: "'It's not mosquitoes spreading it, because look how long mosquitoes deh round and this is the first case of mosquito giving chik-V. I don't believe that,' an adamant Bobbette Parchment declared in downtown Kingston as she pointed to the rashes which she has developed in the past few days. 'I don't believe that the mosquito caused it. I don't know what cause it, but I know that even before the outbreak, I keep my doors locked and the place sprayed regularly. I don't see how mosquitoes could bite me,' said supermarket employee Derron Johnson."

The most extreme reaction is that the outbreak of chikungunya in Jamaica is linked to a recent plane crash. Ms Virtue writes, "Some persons were even adamant that the outbreak is linked to the plane carrying businessman Laurence Glazer and his wife, Jane, which crashed off the coast of Port Antonio earlier this month. With entire communities becoming afflicted with the virus, sporting events being disrupted, and more and more persons rushing for medical treatment, these theories are gaining traction despite the local and international literature which rubbish these claims."

Public opinion research says that when their leaders don't tell people what they want to hear, they gravitate to those who will. In an environment like this, with people worried and upset, they come up with their own answers or rush to the obeah men for 'cures'. It is what is happening in other parts of the world. In many parts of Africa, and certainly most of South Africa, it is believed that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV. The World Health Organisation (WHO) insists that "Busting the myths about Ebola is crucial to stop the transmission of the disease in Guinea." Some people believe that eating raw onions once a day for three days will protect them from Ebola. Others think that a daily intake of condensed milk can prevent infection from the disease. Like Jamaica, fear has fuelled the spread of rumours and misinformation.

The enemy is well known. It is the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It is what spreads dengue or 'break bone' fever. It has now branched out in chikungunya, or 'that which bends up' - meaning the pain that is associated with the disease. Because we are its breakfast, lunch and dinner, the mosquito lives and breeds in our homes, close to us.

I was part of a 16-country dengue project in the 1990s, and when I returned to the field in 2012 and 2013, I found the situation worse than it was before. What bothered me then and now is the cynicism of the ministries of health in the region. They send out these 'spray' vehicles full of noxious fumes knowing that their effect on the Aedes aegypti is minimal and that the only way to reduce the impact of the diseases is what is called 'source reduction', or keeping the mosquitoes from breeding in and around the home. By not helping us get rid of the mosquitoes, we now have chikungunya in addition to dengue. One has to ask, if the ministries with all their 'vector-control' workers continue with the same attitude, what will come at us next?

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that we take mosquitoes in our homes so much for granted that most of the Jamaicans who have chikungunya swear they have not been bitten by mosquitoes.