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Mosquito: more than a bug

Anopheles mosquito sucking blood
Anopheles mosquito, a vector of Malaria


In one half of the world, the mosquito is seen to most as a minor annoyance, but for others, mosquitoes are synonymous with disease, pain, and death. Today is the World Mosquito Day and the perfect reminder of the devastating impact of such diseases as MalariaZika, and various kinds of Encephalitis for which mosquitoes are a major vector.

Malaria – a headline disease

Malaria is the headline disease associated with mosquitoes and it was on this very day in 1897 that Sir Ronald Ross discovered that female mosquitoes can transmit malaria between humans. This was a major breakthrough in tackling the disease, yet despite significant progress, over 100 years on it is still the cause of tens of thousands of deaths every year, with annual case numbers on a steady incline.

Worldwide Malaria cases graph Worldwide Malaria deaths graph

‘Bad Air’ of the ancients

Malaria dates back thousands of years. Ancestral evidence found in 30-million-year-old amber shows that mosquitoes plagued humans from the earliest civilizations. It started having a significant impact on human survival roughly 10,000 years ago at the start of agriculture, and even Cleopatra is reputed to have slept under a mosquito net – though likely to avoid bites in general, rather than a preventative measure for the disease. Given the disease’s age, it is no surprise it has been referenced under many different names, such as Roman Fever and ‘Bad Air’ (Mal Aria), from which the modern name is derived.

A brief history of drugs

The most effective early drug was centered around Quinine, known since the 16th century and made from ground cinchona “fever” tree bark. Successfully synthesized in the early 20th century, it is the precursor to such drugs as Chloroquine. The revolutionary Methylene Blue – first synthetic antimalarial – was developed by Heinrich Caro. It helped differentiate between blood cells and the nuclei of malarial parasites. In a world without advanced microscopes, this was a significant breakthrough in identifying the disease.

Prevention is better than cure

The prevalence of the disease led to many efforts to try and prevent infection, but it wasn’t until Sir Ross proved the female mosquito as the vector in 1897 that targeted efforts could be made in limiting contact to mosquitoes, along with improving medicines. Nowadays, mosquito nets, insect repellents, and regular anti-insect medicines are commonplace in homes across the globe. The killing of mosquitoes was even cited as a selling point for the ill-fated insecticide DDT.

The United States was certified as “malaria-free” by the World Health Organisation in 1970, but even so over 1,000 cases are reported every year, virtually all imported from other countries.

Malaria cases in United States graph

While it is a preventable and curable disease, it is worth taking extra protection measures when traveling to high-risk areas, such as central Africa or India. A combination of symptoms such as headache, back pain, chills, sweating, myalgia, nausea, vomiting can be unpleasant, to say the least!

Malaria worldwide endemic distribution map



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