Aedes albopictus mosquito feeds on a human host.
A blood-engorged female
A blood-engorged female Aedes albopictus mosquito feeds on a human host. Corbis
It's a war that began more than a century ago, but there's no end in sight. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And hundreds of scientists have devoted their lives to it. It's the battle against disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Science writer Jennifer Kahn learned just how bad for you these tiny pests can be. On a trip to Thailand, she caught dengue fever from a mosquito bite. She fell ill on the long flight back and spent several weeks at home recovering.
Kahn set out to learn more about what she calls these "tiny flying bags of disease." The result is her article in the September issue of Outside magazine.
Here's some of what she found out: Mosquitoes can fly about 30 miles over open ocean. They can smell people from 50 yards away. They can breed anywhere — even in the rainwater that collects in a leaf or in an animal's hoof print — and they do so prolifically.
The battle against mosquitoes began in earnest about 100 years ago when it was discovered that they carried malaria from person to person, Kahn says.
"Before that, they were just pests," she says. "And once we discovered that they were actually the vectors for disease, that's really when the gloves came off."
A series of eradication programs, escalating around World War II, included draining the swamps in Florida, dumping DDT from the air and spraying the insecticide over ponds.
"We're winning some battles," Kahn says. "It's not very realistic to say that we're winning the war."
Still, they try. Some scientists are tinkering with the mosquito genome, so the insects can't actually carry malaria, Kahn says. Others are breeding sterile male mosquitoes, then dumping them in infested areas with the idea that they will crowd out the diseased mosquito population.
Can scientific knowledge defeat the pest? Kahn is cautious: "That's actually one of the bigger problems in the mosquito war... that almost anything you can come up with, mosquitoes can adapt against. They're very able that way..."