Mosquitos and Misinformation Surround Malaria Scare

During this spring and summer, you will hear the sounds of many insects: the buzz of the bee, the chirp of the cricket, the thrum of the cicada. And do you hear that persistent, irritating high-pitched whine? That’s the sound of history and geography teachers keening in despair.

It’s bad enough that perky 12-year-olds insist, as one recently did to me, that England is part of North America. But the older generation should lead me to expect better. After all, they went to school when people both received an education and developed a social conscience. Lately however, they appear to be sacrificing the former for the sake of the latter.

With last fall’s outbreak of West Nile fever in New York City and this spring’s discovery that Culex mosquitoes in NYC are still harboring the virus, some commentators trumpet that this isn’t anything compared to what it will be like 50 years from now. With the onset of global warming, tropical diseases such as malaria, encephalitis, and yellow fever will spread to subtropical areas, decimating the population. Why already, one commentator assured us, you can see the trend, for Florida spends $100 million on malarial control.

Some of these commentators are English. In which case, I excuse their ignorance of the United States’ history, because—perky 12-year-olds take note—England is not a geographical part of North America. Thus, the English may be unaware that malaria has been endemic in Florida, as well as in the vast majority of the United States east of the Rockies, for centuries.

While not indigenous to the United States, malaria spread throughout the country once it was introduced in the 1600s. It persisted as a major public health problem into this century. In 1914, the United States had 600,000 cases of malaria. Even as late as 1946, the stated purpose for founding the Centers for Disease Control was controlling communicable diseases such as malaria.

The United States has hosted, and continues to host, other mosquito-borne diseases. Yellow fever tended to confine its deadly attentions to the Southeast, killing 20,000 in 1878. However, it forayed north too, wiping out 4,000 people in Philadelphia in 1793 and periodically visiting Boston and New York. Various encephalitic viruses enjoy a wide range throughout the United States, and dengue skirts about the Gulf Coast.

But the English should know that many mosquito-borne diseases aren’t solely tropical. Malaria was endemic to parts of Great Britain. King Charles II contracted the disease in England, and both Chaucer and Shakespeare mention it. In fact, malaria played merry havoc with Europe for millennia. One large epidemic occurred in Archangel, Russia, in 1925. Thirty thousand people contracted the disease; thirty percent of them died.

Yet commentators pronounce that global warming will spread mosquito-borne disease into the virgin territories of the United States and Northern Europe. Too late, they’ve already been here and there.

Why then aren’t the citizens of the United States and Europe shaking with the ague? Naturally, cold weather prevents the spread of such diseases, but mainly wealth, not weather, has shielded populations. In 1995, dengue spread to the Mexico-Texas border. On the Mexican side, there were approximately 6,000 cases. On the Texas side, there were six. Our wealth, spent on insect repellants, pesticides, screens, air conditioners, and mosquito control boards, curbs the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases in the West.

Other countries aren’t so lucky. If global warming ended tomorrow, mosquito-borne diseases would still plague developing countries. Vaccination and mosquito control remain the only effective weapons in combating these diseases.

However, the development of vaccines is difficult work. Plasmodium, the malarial parasite, consists of four different species that mutate constantly. Mosquito-borne viruses mutate as well. These mutations can cause existing vaccines to become ineffective and complicate the development of new vaccines.

Mosquito control is the most effective preventive measure against mosquito-borne diseases. In poor countries, the application of DDT to the interior of houses remains the best weapon in the fight against malaria. The cheapest and most effective pesticide out there, DDT, presents far less of a threat to human health than does malaria.

In the West, hiding behind our screens and air conditioning and reeking of OFF, we can afford to ban DDT. People in developing countries don’t have that luxury. Yet Westerners have determined that DDT should be banned worldwide, arrogantly announcing that we do it for the good of the future generations of poor, ignorant people in developing countries. We do it in short for the children, who along with pregnant women make up 90% of the malarial dead.

In Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder devotes a chapter to the effect malaria had on her homesteading family. In it, she mentions the beliefs of the time that breathing the night air or eating watermelons caused "fever ‘n’ ague." She ends the chapter in a rather apologetic tone, saying that the people of the time didn’t know that the disease was malaria and that mosquitoes transmitted it. No need to apologize, Mrs. Wilder, apparently people of our educated and socially conscious time don’t know that either.

Jennifer Zambone ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at CEI.