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The Mosquito – a review

The Mosquito, a book by Timothy C. Winegard, is the major focus of this blogpost. First, let me put it into the context of today’s major news events. As COVID-19 infected and hospitalized numbers are increasing in our province and nation-wide, there is major political debate on how to handle the situation. Promising data is coming from vaccine trials for COVID-19, but it may take some time for approval and distribution to the public. During this time of the worldwide pandemic, it is possible to wonder if we will ever get back to normal.

This spring many of us were re-watching the 2011 movie ‘Contagion’. It seemed eerily accurate in describing the events happening worldwide at that time. The movie claimed a death toll in the U.S. of 2.5 million with 26 million deaths worldwide. The movie satisfied us all with the very quick discovery of a vaccine and soon everyone was back to their normal lives. The number of deaths reported worldwide as of November 10, 2020 is 1.26 million. This is a tragic toll, but much less than in the movie. What did I learn about mosquitos from Winegard’s book that might help me understand today’s issues?

The Mosquito is subtitled ‘A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’. Indeed, Winegard takes us back to the time of the dinosaurs to show us that the mosquito has been a problem insect considerably before the emergence of humans. He speculates on how genetic changes gave some early peoples an advantage over others with respect to surviving malaria and other diseases spread by the mosquito. Winegard then guides us through the major impact that malaria and yellow fever have had on civilizations and military campaigns from the Greeks and the Romans to the Crusades and the Mongol Empire. He then investigates the role of the mosquito in the ‘Columbian Exchange’. A significant number of chapters are dedicated to the influence of mosquito-spread diseases on the history of the United States. Canadian history plays a small role in this book as it relates to the larger wars between Britain and France. Perhaps because of Canada’s northern location, the biggest impact of malarial mosquitos was during the building of the Rideau Canal. There was also some discussion of the role of mosquitos in South and Central America as well as Caribbean Island nations.

We learn of the parts played by Koch, Lister and Pasteur in proving the germ theory and how that ultimately led to the unbelievable (at that time ) suggestion that it was not the miasma that caused the health problems, but the mosquito. The book also follows the development of medicines like quinine, and then the much recently discussed chloroquine. We read about the development of DDT and the subsequent unintended consequences described by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring.

Finally, Winegard helps us learn how the initial agencies set up by the Americans to control mosquitos and their related diseases morphed into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We end the book examining what we could or should do to control mosquitos and the related diseases using modern methods including CRISPR technology.

Perhaps the most meaningful quote I could take from this book is that: “While the mediums of microorganism conveyance may have changed, the spread of contagion remains relatively the same, except now the travel time has been dramatically reduced and disease delivered from door to door in hours instead of months and years or even thousands of years in the case of early human-disease migration and settlement patterns.” Even though this book was written prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, I see a great many parallels and lessons to be learned. I hope that, as in the ending of the movie Contagion, we will all soon get back to normal. After reading The Mosquito, I fear we will have to work very hard or the historians will be looking at this as one more turning point in human history.

You can also find me on Twitter @GWardis

The Mosquito – a review

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