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The Mosquito

A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

By Timothy C. Winegard
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The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

The Mosquito (2019) provides a sweeping tour of human history with a novel twist. As it follows the course of the pivotal events that shaped the world in which we live today, it draws attention to some of the most important but under-appreciated factors that have influenced those events: the mosquito and the deadly diseases it carries.

Key idea 1 of 15

Thriving in wet warm conditions, mosquitos are vectors for a variety of diseases, of which malaria is the deadliest.

Before we take a deep dive into human history, let’s first step back and meet our story’s antagonist: the mosquito itself. 

Or rather, the mosquito herself. It’s only the female mosquito which bites us to suck up our blood – potentially transferring a disease to us in the process. She uses the blood to develop her eggs. A few days after biting us, she’ll lay about 200 of them on the surface of a stagnant body of water. It could be a pond, a swamp, a puddle or even just a tiny pool of rainwater in a discarded beer can. She doesn’t need much to work with. That being said, the wetter the environment, the better it’ll serve as a breeding ground for the insect. 

Temperature also plays a crucial role in the flourishing of mosquitos. They prefer temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas they cannot survive in temperatures below 50 or above 105. As a result, in temperate climates, they emerge only in the spring, summer and fall, while in tropical climates, they’re active all year long. 

Warm wet environments thus provide ideal conditions to mosquitos, as well as the diseases they carry. These diseases are caused by pathogens that use the mosquito as vectors – organisms by which they transmit themselves. There are at least 15 mosquito-borne diseases that affect human beings, and they derive from three types of pathogens: viruses, worms and parasites. They include the worms that cause elephantiasis, which provokes extreme swelling of the limbs and other body parts, along with the viruses that cause dengue, Zika, West Nile and yellow fever.

Historically, however, the heaviest hitter has been the parasite that causes malaria. There are five types of malaria that affect human beings, the deadliest of which are vivax and falciparum. Capable of causing 106-degree Fahrenheit fevers, seizures and comas that can lead to death rates of up to 50 percent, malaria began afflicting our prehuman ancestors six to eight million years ago, and it’s been plaguing us ever since. 

As it gets passed back and forth between humans and mosquitos, the malaria parasite mutates multiple times during its multi-stage reproductive cycle. Because of its constant shape-shifting, it is hard for scientists to pin down the parasite and develop an effective vaccine. But that hasn’t stopped human beings from fighting back against it, in a war that goes back thousands of years.

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