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Book examines how mosquitoes and their pathogens have shaped history Date: 10/09/19


By Bara Vaida

Infectious diseases have altered the course of history since the beginning of time. Until humans really understood how they were transmitted, pathogens almost always had the upper hand. Many books have been written about how diseases like plague and the flu impacted the outcomes of wars and civilization, but few have focused specifically on the mosquito and malaria.

Timothy Winegard, a history professor at Colorado Mesa University, changed that with his book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator” published this summer. For anyone who is interested in understanding the history of medicine and how disease has shaped history, this is worth the read. The book is full of interesting nuggets about mosquito-born diseases and the role they played in the makeup of geopolitical power around the world. Mosquitos likely influenced everything from the war efforts of Alexander the Great to Americans' love of coffee. To learn more about his book, here is an edited interview with Winegard.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Winegard: History is a puzzle and as I amassed and collected research, I began to put those historical mosquito-influenced puzzle pieces together. My four previous books detail and delve into military history and global indigenous peoples. I had come across the devastation wrought by malaria and yellow fever in my research for these books. So, I had some prior background to, and knowledge of, the historical depths of mosquito-borne disease. My dad (who is an emergency physician back home in Canada) and I often brainstorm about book ideas, and he kept mentioning disease and malaria. Eventually, our conversations assembled or rearranged more puzzle pieces. When I had metaphorically collected and sorted all the pieces on the table, it became strikingly clear just how much the mosquito had shaped and influenced our history, and the concept and scaffolding for this book began to take shape.

Q: Do you have favorite resources on mosquito history that you would recommend to journalists?

Winegard: There have been some fantastic and weighty books written on the topic. As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” J.R. McNeill’s “Mosquito Empires” is brilliant, fascinating, and so well researched and written. It was the very first book that I read while beginning my concentrated research, and I was blown away with his indefatigable research and the historical dots that he connected. Also, Sonia Shah’s “The Fever” is another solid entry, although it’s focus is more modern-based on drug companies, and recent malaria treatments and the corporate side of our war with mosquito-borne disease, specifically malaria. The works of Andrew McIlwaine Bell, James Webb Jr. and Randall Packard are also impressively researched and very well-crafted.

Q: Malaria has been eliminated in the U.S. by mosquito control efforts, but it still rages in poorer countries. Is there a mosquito disease that you think US journalists should be paying attention to?

Winegard: The American public … should be concerned about mosquito-borne disease. It is easy to forget that we are only one animal on the planet and that we aren’t the masters of the universe. We share our planet with a wide variety of animals, and we affect each other in an ecological give and take, in this case, zoonotic diseases…. Untethered from a pathogen, mosquitoes are harmless. It is the diseases that she transmits … that cause so much death, misery, and suffering. Also, very few of the roughly 3,500 or so mosquito species are vectors for disease. Yes, domestic malaria was eradicated in the U.S. by 1951, but … we are seeing the emergence or reemergence of other mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S. including West Nile, Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and Eastern equine encephalitis. Last month, I had a student, here in Grand Junction, Colo., who was in the ICU with West Nile. Global warming, deforestation, agriculture, trade, travel, and migration are all … factors resulting in an increase in certain mosquito-borne diseases, not of malaria, which is decreasing annually, but of these other blossoming diseases. Dengue, for example, is making a stubborn comeback and distressing resurgence…. Eastern equine encephalitis is also making headlines in the U.S.

Q: You talk a bit in the book about the technological advances, like CRISPR, that are enabling the possibility of genetically altering mosquitos so they can’t carry malaria and other diseases, but you raise cautions about this. Can you elaborate?

Winegard: With genetically-altered mosquitoes, humans, or any other animal for that matter, the success isn’t foolproof or without unintended consequences. With CRISPR gene-editing technology there are questions and considerations about the legal, moral, ecological, and scientific aspects and repercussions of what we may be getting ourselves into by perhaps opening Pandora’s box. But it is important that these questions are now being asked, debated, and modelled before releasing these laboratory-birthed and created creatures out into the wild world. I don’t think anyone wants Tyrannosaurus Rex window shopping down Main Street USA … like the Jurassic Park movies. On the other hand, CRISPR offers a promising avenue to combat mosquito-borne disease and save millions of lives.

Q: So do you think journalists should be looking at mosquito-borne diseases as maybe the next vector for a pandemic?

Winegard: I am not …. one of the unsung mosquito-warriors fighting in the trenches against mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease. Historically, there are Malthusian checks that come along to deflate our science-driven hubris. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was our last catastrophic epidemic outbreak of a disease. If we look at the history, in our war with the mosquito, we have been losing since the dawn of humanity. We have won the odd battle, with the short-lived eradication promise of DDT after the Second World War for example, but we are losing the war. Mosquitoes want to survive and promote their species as much as we do, and they have been able to circumvent or shape shift our best frontline weapons of eradication. They may very well evolve to genetically outflank CRISPR as well. Our struggles with mosquito-borne disease are far from over.

Q: What was the most surprising thing that you learned?

Winegard: The research was astounding because of the mosquito’s influence across both time and geography. Aside from Antarctica, Iceland, and a few Pacific micro-islands the mosquito is a universal animal, as is her (only females bite) projection of power since at least 190 million years ago. So much of our history and planet has been touched by mosquito-borne disease. One thing that surprised me was the connection to my wife’s family. Her grandfather, Rex, got malaria at Anzio in Italy and again while liberating the Dachau Concentration Camp during the Second World War. His bout with malaria during the Allied landings at Anzio was the result of a deliberate, premeditated act of Nazi biological warfare by systematically reflooding the Pontine Marshes to infect the advancing Allied troops with malaria to slow their momentum. Dachau was the headquarters of the Nazi Tropical Medicine Program, where they conducted horrific experiments. While liberating the camp, Rex was bitten by one of these experimental mosquitoes and received his second dose of malaria. I was also amazed that lethal Panamanian mosquitoes bankrupted Scotland and forced them to forfeit their sovereignty to England with the 1707 Acts of Union leading to the creation of a Greater Britain. While researching this mosquito-influenced event, I just thought and realized how small the world actually is or was. Late-17th Century mosquitoes in the jungle wilds of Panama during Scotland’s failed Darien colonial scheme were directly tied to historic happenings in the British Isles.