The mosquito is the deadliest animal in the world.
So says Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who adds, “When it comes to killing humans, no other animal even comes close.”
Mr. Gates goes on to cite statistics showing that mosquitoes kill about 725,000 humans every year (about 600,000 from malaria alone); compared to 50,000 by snakes; 10,000 by tsetse flies (sleeping sickness); 100 by lions; and 10 by sharks.
In case you were wondering, humans kill about 475,000 of their fellow humans per year.
We in the Cayman Islands are far too familiar with the health threats posed by mosquitoes, particularly the nasty species Aedes aegypti, which prefers to live among humans and carries diseases such as yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya.
Aedes aegypti — and we’re going to repeat its name several more times, following Sun Tzu’s precept to “Know your enemy” — is also a vector for Zika virus, which is the latest headline-grabbing virus of African origin to sweep across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Zika fever is similar to yellow fever, dengue and “CHIKV,” in that it is spread by the bite of Aedes aegypti and causes symptoms such as fever, rash and joint pain. What may set this contagion apart, however, is its potential link to microcephaly, a serious birth defect, if a pregnant woman contracts the Zika virus.
Simply put, microcephaly refers to a child being born with an abnormally small head. The condition can lead to severe intellectual or physical disabilities — though some children suffer little or no ill effects at all. According to a recent story in The New York Times, “For doctors, the diagnosis means an ailment with no treatment, no cure and no clear prognosis.”
The connection between Zika virus and microcephaly (which, for the record, has not yet been established firmly, beyond a shadow of a scientific doubt) has engendered fear, rational precautions and mass media attention.
On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be an international public health emergency.
At this point, however, we would stipulate that, strictly speaking, in Cayman, our primary concern should not be the Zika virus.
As we are writing this column, Zika has not yet been spotted on our shores. Its imminent arrival does not change the fundamental nature of our struggle. “Public enemy number one” is, and remains, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
While a troubling development, the Zika outbreak is neither the first nor the last item in a series of threats posed by Aedes aegypti.
In the past several decades, Cayman’s government has been very good about suppressing the local mosquito population, through spraying, aerial bombing, and even the trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes. If we were in charge of selecting National Heroes, we would have a statue erected in Heroes Square, post haste, of Dr. Marco Giglioli, founder of Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit.
Setting aside that particular group of pilots, foggers and researchers, however, we caution against our country becoming too comfortable with our prevailing efforts to combat mosquitoes. For example, we can’t help but notice, driving around Grand Cayman after rainfall, the ubiquity of pools of standing fresh water, on government and private land, that are breeding grounds for this great public health menace.
Zika virus or no, the absolute eradication of Aedes aegypti from Cayman should be a primary public health goal for our society. It would take a country-wide effort — involving all political parties, independent lawmakers, public servants and residents — but it could be a rallying cause to unite all of our people against a common enemy.
Unlike the frantic, knee-jerk reaction to the locally nonexistent Ebola threat, the war against Aedes aegypti should be a measured, thoughtful and sustained response, guided by fact-based principles from reputable organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The campaign could also be just cause to invite academics and experts from overseas to try novel approaches to eliminate Aedes aegypti in an isolated environment.
Here’s a thought: Rather than welcoming in character assassins from the BBC, perhaps our government should welcome in mosquito assassins from the CDC.