I write in defence of the Mosquito, even as I wish that it sucks fat instead of blood. Every misfortune has an ingredient of fortune if you look deeply enough. Call it a pest, a killer, or whatever else you may, the mosquito, which depopulates whole continents, is also, by some providential paradox, a defender of sorts, especially in my African neck of the woods.
The Swahili call it ‘mbu’; the Igbo, ‘anwụnta’; the Hausa, ‘sauro’; and the Uhrobo, ‘úwè’. But the most musical to my ears is the Yoruba word, Yànmùyánmú, which literally brings the mosquito’s annoying sing-song or whining sound to life. Yànmùyánmú! Nobody living in Africa can avoid a bite or two from the ubiquitous mosquito now and again, which has made its way into our folklore and music, so much so that multi-talented veteran artiste, Jimi Solanke, even had a famous musical track titled ‘Yànmùyánmú’.
The great DH Lawrence wrote a poem on it — or, more like — for it:
“When did you start your tricks/Monsieur?/What do you stand on such high legs for?/Why this length of shredded shank/You exaltation?/Is it so that you shall lift your centre of gravity upwards/And weigh no more than air as you alight upon me,/Stand upon me weightless, you phantom?/I heard a woman call you the Winged Victory/In sluggish Venice./You turn your head towards your tail, and smile./How can you put so much devilry/Into that translucent phantom shred/Of a frail corpus?”
Male mosquitoes live for only one week on average. They don’t suck blood but feed on plant nectar. Females, with the average female life span of about six weeks, are the bloodsuckers. A female mosquito will bite as many victims as necessary to lay her eggs.
The process of biting someone will not kill a female mosquito: In this digital age, humorists among the techies have been having a field day asking victims of mosquito bites: “After you’ve been bit 8 times by a mosquito does that mean you have a mosquito byte?
I will return to the mosquito in a moment, but first, here is the news: Henceforth, a mosquito bite may no longer be a potential death sentence. The World Health Organisation recently announced to a cheering world that it had approved the use of a vaccine called Mosquirix, the first anti-malaria vaccine. The new weapon was developed over a 30-year period by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in collaboration with Seattle-based health nonprofit PATH and a network of African research centres, with partial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the first developed vaccine for any parasitic disease.
If the vaccine lives up to its billing, it will save 500,000 lives in sub-Saharan Africa every year, including 260,000 children under the age of five. The vaccine works by rousing a child’s immune system to thwart Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of five malaria parasites and the most prevalent in Africa.
“This long-awaited vaccine, developed in Africa, by African scientists, is a breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General announced.
Dr. Akpaka Kalu, WHO Regional Advisor for Tropical and Vector-borne Disease, gave kudos to the three African countries — Ghana, Malawi and Kenya — involved in the trials, stating that, “The datasets that were generated in these studies and field trials were by African scientists”. He added that there are ongoing discussions to transfer vaccine manufacturing technology to Africa.
More than 2.3 million doses have been administered in those countries, reaching more than 800,000 children.
However, Dr Doyin Odubanjo, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science and a public health expert, said that although the vaccine is another tool for combating malaria, we should not cast away existing anti-malaria tools.
I now return to the mosquito. As I ponder thankfully over the fact that so many deaths will be prevented with the advent of the vaccine, I can’t help remembering that the mosquito had always been a double-edged sword. While it depopulated Africa and some other tropical parts of the world, it also helped hasten the departure of colonialists who otherwise might have decided to stay on. Thanks to the mosquito, West Africa, especially, was the colonialists’ grave.
Malaria has many strains, of varying virulence. Survival rates are lowest for people encountering new varieties to which they have not gained immunity. As a result, endemic malaria has often acted not only as a local curse but also as a strange sort of protector. It is an equal opportunity killer, smiting both the native and the interloper.
How I wish that Oba Ovonramwen of Benin and King Jaja of Opobo had cultivated an army of well-starved mosquitoes to defend their kingdoms when the advance parties of the colonial armies set their feet on their soil!
Bestselling author Timothy C. Winegard, in his book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator”, showed how deadly the little fly had been over the ages. In his estimation, mosquitoes have killed fifty-two billion people, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. That is, more people than any other single cause. And that is why he calls mosquitoes “our apex predator”, “the destroyer of worlds”, and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”
You would think he was writing about some newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile:
“Military strategists, from Saladin to the Nazis, used mosquitoes as direct weapons of war. At Walcheren, Napoleon breached dikes to create a brackish flood—the ensuing malaria epidemic killed four thousand English soldiers—and declared, ‘We must oppose the English with nothing but fever, which will soon devour them all.’ Often, of course, malaria exacted a toll on both sides. It pushed English Protestants into Catholic Ireland, setting the stage for the Troubles centuries later. But Oliver Cromwell, the Englishman who conquered Ireland, died of malaria, in 1658, rather than take quinine, the only known treatment, because he associated it with its Catholic discoverers, making him a victim of both parasitosis and sectarianism.”
He noted that the Romans tried to colonise Panama 1500 years before the Scottish but they
were thwarted by a strain of malaria local to Scotland which is estimated to have killed half of the eighty thousand Roman soldiers. The same thing happened to Hannibal’s forces as they ransacked Italy and made Genghis Khan’s army turn away from southern Europe. Malaria killed more than a third of European crusaders intent on conquering the Holy Land.
Winegard observed that just twenty-two years after Columbus stepped onto Hispaniola, a census revealed that the local Taino population had nosedived from between five and eight million people to just twenty-six thousand. Together with smallpox and influenza, mosquito-borne diseases sent ninety-five million indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, to their early graves.
The mosquito was also responsible for the high value placed on African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. “An indigenous slave, likely to die of imported disease, cost less than an also vulnerable European indentured servant, who cost less than a slave imported directly from Africa. Most expensive of all were Africans who had spent enough time in the Americas to prove their resistance to its mixture of diseases”, explained Winegard.
And he does the arithmetic of survival in the Caribbean based on who could withstand mosquito bites: “Of ten men that go to the islands” from a particular nation, “four English die, three French, three Dutch, three Danes, and one Spaniard.” Today’s Caribbean nations reflect these mortality rates: those colonised by the English, the Dutch, and the French tend to have populations that are of majority African descent; only the former Spanish colonies have significant populations descended from Europeans.
Journalist Brooke Jarvis brilliantly highlighted this point in a New Yorker article titled ‘How Mosquitoes Changed Everything’. Her grouse: “They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history. And they’re not finished with us yet.”
I’ve been wondering, suppose some smart businessman takes the contract to flush out Boko Haram terrorists and kidnappers out of our forests employing mosquitoes as drones? Imagine battalions of whining mosquito drones descending on the forests to render the terrorists too ill to fight! Their ISWAP backers will have to repeat the famous lamentation of Florence Nightingale who called the Pontine Marshes, near Rome, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” on account of infestation with mosquitoes.
Thank God for the pioneer anti-malaria vaccine. Thank God that humanity is collaborating for once on a project that could reduce mortality globally. And thank God for those long forgotten years when the anopheles mosquito was the black man’s ally against invading colonialist forces.
Let no one think that a malaria-free Africa is open for ‘re-pacification’.