Blood lust

The coauthor of a new book on mosquitoes talks about who they bite, where they lurk and how they've killed over a billion human beings

Published August 20, 2001 5:35PM (EDT)

Chances are, where you find humans, you'll find the mosquito. Actually, it's likely the mosquito will find you first. And in just 90 seconds, it can land on you, suck a few micrograms of your blood and leave behind an itchy, ugly welt -- if not a deadly disease.

Mosquitoes are a bug that people love to hate, and one that has wreaked unparalleled havoc in the history of the civilized world. Michael D'Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of five books, decided to find the world's expert on the suckers and engage him in a book project. Andrew Spielman, Harvard University's senior investigator in tropical disease, turned out to be a coauthor's dream. Spielman has spent 50 years studying mosquito-borne illnesses and possesses a playful and quirky way of looking at his often lethal subject.

This combination of wry humor and a surprising veneration for the insect makes "Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe" a delightful and riveting tale, even when the authors break down biological and anatomical mechanisms. Spielman and D'Antonio also illuminate the history of mosquito-borne disease and the masterful evolutionary process that enables the mosquito to survive expensive and elaborate attempts to wipe it out. "Mosquito" is a must-read, especially this summer, when you could easily have 10,000 of these predators buzzing, hovering and dive-bombing all over your backyard or picnic site.

D'Antonio spoke to Salon from his home in Long Island, N.Y.

You and Andrew Spielman seem to have a lot of reverence for these bugs.

The thing I love about them is that they're so much themselves. They're like sharks in the sense that they pursue two goals: feeding and reproduction. There's something very clean and easy to grasp about that.

And they need blood to reproduce?

Yes. Only the females feed on you.

Which I'm sure encourages a lot of jokes.


What do the males do?

They're really only there for reproduction. Mosquito sex is almost as remarkable as its human equivalent and probably more varied and dangerous. The male house mosquito often leaves his equipment behind after coupling. You have mosquito rapists. You have the satyristic tiger mosquitoes who are sort of like a conquering army who rape the women of the land they've subdued.

These strategies for adaptation and survival are almost beautifully vicious. And they really have no brains. All of this is being done via the mystery of a very rudimentary neural system and responses to the environment.

Do your friends think your fascination with them is weird?

They are horrified. But part of it is, too, maybe, that I don't suffer from mosquito bites at all.

OK, hold up. I think we have to break this down. My mom used to say mosquitoes bit me because I was sweet. That really doesn't have anything to do with it though, right? What really attracts them?

One thing is dirty feet.

That one's true?

If your feet smell like cheese, the mosquitoes will treat you like a buffet table.

Have they studied this cheese-like smell formally?

It was, I believe, Dutch researchers who experimented first with dirty socks and then approximated smelly socks with cheese.

What kind of cheese, by the way?

Limburger. They found that mosquitoes were attracted to both. There's something in the fermentation of sweat and dead skin and dirt and whatever else accumulates between your toes. So cleanliness is one factor -- your mom was right about bathing regularly.

What else makes them go for you?

Certain people generate more lactic acid when they exercise. Also, they are attracted to carbon dioxide. An exercising person will attract mosquitoes. And if you flail about, you draw them to you. One of the loveliest things that Andy says is that they think with their skin. They sense the pressure of the air changing and they're very sensitive to changes in light. They seek to escape a shadow so anything that approaches the mosquito elicits a response.

So a spastic person attracts mosquitoes.

The nervous and the neurotic. The person most afraid and most concerned will most attract them. A relaxed person who's not moving about is more likely to be overlooked.

The other thing that is being considered is that fair-skinned and fair-haired people attract them because they reflect more light. Mosquitoes are aware of light sources, so against a dark background like foliage, they might find the blond first. They're also more likely to be found in shaded and watery areas, so that makes sense. It's the contrast. If you're a dark-haired, dark-skinned person on a white, sandy beach, they might find you too.

Then you must be a calm, clean and grayish-hued man who refrains from outdoor exercise.

No, they do bite me. But I have been outdoors all my life and I have immunity to the irritants that they leave behind because I have been bitten so many times. I won't get the welt. That's the real difference between people who say they're bitten all the time and those who don't. We're all probably bitten the same amount of times if we spend time outdoors. Really, the person who says they get bitten all the time, probably really hasn't been bitten enough!

If a modern world traveler were to ask you, where would you tell them to be careful of mosquitoes?

Anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Parts of the Middle East because of both West Nile and Rift Valley fever. Southeast Asia, parts of India. Parts of China -- for both malaria and filariasis which is elephantiasis and certainly frightening.

I didn't realize that the mosquito can give you elephantiasis.

It's the only thing that can. There are problems in Pacific Island countries. Vietnam, today, would be so hostile to an invading force that America might not be able to fight a war there. The big problem there is drug-resistant malaria. There are places in Cambodia and Thailand like that too. And there's dengue in Central America and the Caribbean.

Wow. So what are the precautions we should take to avoid mosquito-borne diseases?

It's important to ask local people when the mosquitoes bite. Each region's mosquitoes follow a different lifestyle. Some feed when the bright light of morning finally shines and others prefer dusk. There's almost always safe times and safe places.

If you're in a rural area, you damn well better have a bed net. Don't be afraid of the chemicals in mosquito repellents -- while they can produce an allergic reaction, they are more likely to save your life. Light, long-sleeved, long-legged clothes are smart.

Repellents do work?

Even something as rudimentary as olive oil. Anything oily. But nothing compares to DEET.

But for the backyard, those big, blue zapper things don't work, huh?

No. There's a new product called the Mosquito Magnet that has an attractant in it -- I would buy that for my neighbors and let them attract all of them. If you're near the device, chances are the mosquito will go for you instead of the trap. None of those things are likely to help you.

Most people buy those things because they're annoyed by mosquitoes. But should we be scared of them?

I have to be careful not to understate this: mosquitoes really can kill you. Growing up in the Northeast, we always knew about eastern equine encephalitis. In the '50s and '60s, summer would bring a dozen or more deaths to children in the Boston area. You still can be killed by this virus. It's far more dangerous than West Nile.

How many cases of EEE pop up a year now?

Roughly, half a dozen. Anywhere from Florida to Maine. It seems to be a problem mainly in Central Florida and then for some reason around Cape Cod and the New Hampshire border.

There's a certain mosquito that causes West Nile, right?

Yes, we think. Unfortunately, it's the most common mosquito -- culex pipiens. She's a birdfeeder and that's why she's trouble. The reservoir for the virus is avian so if a bird is not available, then she will bite us. A point to make is that the bad mosquito is the old mosquito. There has to be two feedings -- one to acquire the virus from birds and one to deliver.

In the beginning, they thought West Nile was St. Louis encephalitis?

Correct. It's not clear why, but St. Louis encephalitis has never been seen east of Albany, N.Y. St. Louis encephalitis is also more dangerous than West Nile.

Have there been many West Nile cases this summer?

There's been one death. The really interesting news is that studies have confirmed that far more people were infected than was once believed. It may be a thousand nonfatal infections to every fatal one, perhaps even more. If nine people died in New York in 1999, then close to 10,000 were infected.

Right. Someone told me that if you're young and healthy then you can fight it. So an illness like the flu might have been West Nile but you beat it.

Exactly. You would have developed some immunity based on that infection too. Like all organisms, though, this virus does change. It's anticipated that there will be new strains of West Nile circulating in the future. In the not too distant future, I expect that there will be vaccines for the elderly.

The thing that might be most troubling about West Nile is that it is an urban phenomenon. EEE depends on horses, so you'll see it in a rural setting. With sparrows and especially starlings carrying West Nile -- these are city birds -- and the mosquito is a city mosquito so you have potentially far more exposures.

And they think that West Nile arrived here through modes of transportation like ships or planes? Just like yellow fever probably did in Philadelphia?

Yes. A mosquito could have gotten off the plane. But people can't transmit West Nile to a mosquito, nor can they give it to each other. The concentration in the blood isn't high enough. Although, it's possible that a bird brought it.

Flew all the way from Africa? They can do that?

It's possible. Birds in Western Europe are affected by West Nile, and it's not unheard of for a bird to cross the Atlantic.

Also, there have been several recorded instances of populations of insects being swept up on one continent and deposited on another. There have been literally rains of beetles or cicadas in the Caribbean that were Saharan insects.

How did that happen?

A really dramatic dust storm. Or a tornado that deposits them in the upper atmosphere. They can be carried on the jet stream. It's a small world.

Does any other insect compare to the mosquito in terms of the havoc it wreaks?

We don't think so. The flea and the plague -- that was very important. Lice are very important in their relationship to humans. But in terms of eons of killing and the variety of illnesses, nothing compares to mosquitoes. Over time, they've been responsible for easily a billion deaths.

What was the most devastating mosquito-borne outbreak, if you had to pick one?

Boy. I certainly think that the yellow fever crises in Philadelphia and Memphis and New Orleans between 1793 and the Civil War were very dramatic examples. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Half of a city could be killed. Besides the death, you have the debilitating effects of these illnesses, which can be chronic.

But malaria has been more far-reaching than yellow fever. You write that every 12 seconds a child dies from malaria.

Malaria can be more devastating than AIDS [which the mosquito cannot transmit] because it affects far more people in a community. If you're in an afflicted village in Africa, everyone has it and everyone has been debilitated by it. Every child is in danger of being killed by it. In these times, it's unacceptable. I do think that it's wonderful that there's some attention being given to this now by the World Health Organization and major foundations and even the U.S. government.

Who's leading the current campaign?

It's primarily the WHO. Their funding is from Western governments and foundations like the Welcome Trust. The plan is to use medicine and insecticide-impregnated bed nets. And it does save individual people. But if you don't use old-fashioned sanitation techniques and give people screens for their houses, you don't solve the problem.

Where else besides Africa is malaria such a debilitating problem?

A lot of Southeast Asia. Malaria is making a big comeback in the former Soviet Union because the public health infrastructure has collapsed. They have gone from zero cases to at least 100,000 cases per year. There's even more malaria cases in Europe and more in England, in part because of immigration.

Do we get it in the U.S. anymore?

From time to time. There was once a small outbreak at a Boy Scout camp near my home in Long Island. There are valleys in Southern California where the local homeowners are exposed to malaria because they're passageways for illegal immigration.

Why isn't America suffering from massive malaria outbreaks?

It disappeared in the pre-World War II era as a result of DDT. We also got richer and because of that we can drain swamps, build mosquito-proof homes and purchase air conditioning. Air conditioning is really the death knell to mosquito-borne diseases.

Andy also says that the sound of malaria being defeated is a screen door slamming.

It seemed that both of you were saying that eradicating DDT was a very bad thing.

That's another irony -- DDT's decline has hurt the Third World. Its misuse and misapplication is a serious problem, but its careful use can be a boon to human health. It's hard to say when you're sitting in the United States, safe from fatal mosquito-borne diseases, that poor villages should be denied the protection. But there's no argument that DDT has a negative effect on other species.

Which species does it affect?

Unfortunately, it kills almost all insect life. It's bad for bird populations. It does find its way into human tissue. But there's a cost/benefit ratio and if it's applied expertly, it's as safe as most chemicals. If you can beat back the mosquitoes and then perform the infrastructure improvements, its benefits are dramatic.

In the 20th century, which countries did it really save?

The United States. It helped us a lot. And much of southern Europe -- Italy, Sardinia. The Italian experience in ancient times foreshadowed the African experience in the 18th and 19th century. Rome was protected from invasion for centuries.

Because people were afraid of the illness?

More than that -- they were killed. Armies would make it into the low-lying areas around Rome, attempt to lay siege to the city and be reduced by half by mosquitoes. Especially in the summertime, any military expedition against Rome was doomed to fail.

So colonization in Africa would have been far more advanced far more quickly had it not been for mosquitoes?

Absolutely. The whole "white man's grave" thing was real. It's a big part of the myth of deepest, darkest Africa. It's why traders never left the coast. In a way, it protected interior cultures and peoples.

Does the mosquito serve any other purpose besides slowing down colonization, killing people and ruining summer cookouts?

Only its own. They really are a lot like us -- they're here to serve themselves, exploit their environment and compete vigorously for dominance. They're the ultimate survivor.

And they will probably survive us.

As long as there's some living, blooded creature. There are a few that can reproduce without blood. That guarantees that they'll live here even when we're not.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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