Stet by Ria Bacon

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Snow and Mosquitoes??

Imagine the scene. A small child sleeping fitfully under crumpled bedclothes. Silence. Zoom in to a head shot. High-pitched whine fades in and out. Child listlessly swats the air without waking. Another high-pitched whine, which stops abruptly. Pull back. Silence. Zoom in for close head shot to see a mosquito feeding on the child's cheek.
Woke up this morning to see a light dusting of snow on the rooftops. Right by the window frame was a mosquito. I splatted it. So even in zero-degree temperatures we still have mosquitoes. I had come to expect them during the hot months but this year we've been killing mosquitoes almost every day. There are regular public awareness campaigns here in Rome, warning people not to create breeding places for mosquitoes by leaving any standing water outside. Well, it's not working this year, that's for sure. Even when we were away for almost two weeks at Xmas, they were waiting for us on our return. I guess they'd gorged their bellies before we left and lived off the reserves.

I really hate mosquitoes. They're one of the proofs that God doesn't exist or else that s/he just doesn't care that much. Maybe it's from having lived in malarial zones where their bite can lead to far worse than itching. Still, the idea of a parasite sucking your blood is repulsive to anyone, I'm sure. And guess what? Only the females have the long thin proboscis needed to bite. Males have small mouth parts and live off plant nectar. Aww, sweeties.

Mosquitoes have been around for some 30 million years and have had time to develop their hunting and feeding skills to a science-fiction level of precision. They can track you down with chemical, visual or heat sensors (I'm seeing Predator here) and when the female sticks her proboscis in your skin, her saliva functions as a local anaesthetic and contains an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing freely until her belly is full (I'm seeing .... Aliens?). However, the saliva is also the means by which malaria is transmitted, a disease responsible for over a million deaths a year.

Don't shoot the messenger
As repulsive as mosquitoes, sorry, female mosquitoes are, they are only the carriers of the parasite that causes malaria. (Ha! Maybe God does have a sense of justice.) The real cause is the protozoa plasmodium, that is a single-celled "animal" with no organs. Imagine that? Eating, digesting and expelling without any innards. Sounds pretty messy to me. Once you've been bitten by an infected Anopheles mosquito, the plasmodium heads for your liver and starts rooting around, replicating and infecting. You won't know until the chills and fevers come on. "If left untreated", I was warned, "the infection may eventually cause convulsions, coma, permanent neurological damage, and/or death." That "and/or" suggests you have a choice. You don't.

So what to do? The cheapest and most effective preventative is a chemically-treated mosquito net over your bed ... and DDT sprayed on the housewalls. Yet people we worked with in West Africa could not be convinced that mosquitoes were the source of malaria. There was a kind of fatalism about infection and many shrugged off malarial attacks just as we do the 'flu. Popular opinion was that malaria was caused by too much exposure to the sun or the results of heavy rainfall. What can we say? Even the etymology reveals European ignorance: mal aria, bad air. It was only a little over 100 years ago that the real cause was discovered.

Brrr! Now we're scratching and shivering.

Mosquito in the snow

P.S. You may not like Microsoft but you've got to admire Bill's generosity (1, 2).