A Natural History
of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe
By Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio
Hyperion -- 247pp-- $22.95
Reports of the possible spread of West Nile virus to Florida are a reminder that mosquitoes are no mere summertime irritant. From dengue fever to malaria to yellow fever, this insect spreads more human illnesses than any other. A wise and lively account of the scourge can be found in Mosquito, by Harvard University scientist Andrew Spielman and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D'Antonio.
Mosquitoes, they note, are marvels of resourcefulness: One variety, Aedes communis, can handily survive subzero Arctic winters. But the insect's ability to flourish in a range of surroundings is bad news for humanity. The authors detail the toll mosquitoes have taken across the globe since the Middle Ages, citing numbers of humans infected, lives lost, and economies disrupted. Some 5,500 people died of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the 1790s. In the 19th century, Memphis, Mobile, and New Orleans were racked by the disease, which seemed to "follow railroad lines and rivers to find new victims." As many as two-thirds of the Europeans involved in the French-led building of the Panama Canal fell ill to malaria and yellow fever. And a 1938 malaria epidemic in Brazil left between 14,000 and 20,000 dead.
Mosquito also recounts the sometimes heroic medical efforts to counter mosquito-borne illnesses. The basic discovery that mosquitoes were a vector was made in the 1870s by Dr. Patrick Manson, a British medical officer based in Taiwan. Manson was studying elephantiasis, a disease caused by the filaria worm that results in extreme swelling, usually of the ankles, feet, and genitals. Elsewhere, Spielman describes hearing a sanitary engineer tell of the valor of a nurse treating yellow fever cases: Her "face and snow-white uniform were regularly drenched by the black vomit of her patients."
Mosquito is far from a simple collection of anecdotes. There's a wealth of scientific detail--and at times, I felt the authors could have made do with less. Do we really need to know, for example, that the mating behavior of the sea worm is far more violent than that of the mosquito?
Still, the book is certainly worth the reader's effort--and not just for its well-paced historical perspective. One point Spielman hopes to get across: Humans bring many of these problems on themselves. Inadequately supervised international travel and commerce allow mosquitoes to hitch rides, via freighters or planes, to new locations. Indiscriminate use of insecticides like DDT and such medicines as chloroquine has fostered resistant disease strains.
The costs of fighting mosquito-borne illnesses, particularly malaria, already are high. And Spielman's recommendations--increased information gathering, education programs, and better housing--involve even higher costs. But the alternatives are grim indeed.
By Karin Pekarchik