Getting away with murder

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Sunday 30 Jul 2023


We never think of a heat wave as a natural disaster, we just take it in stride. It is hard to believe that heat waves are among the most dangerous natural hazards. They are more deadly than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, and cold waves combined.

“Of all natural disasters, heat is the number one killer,” says epidemiologist Kristie Ebi of the University of Washington. “Heat waves are mass-casualty events and the deaths are even more distressing, because they are preventable.”

What is even worse than the agitation and discomfort are the insects that thrive in the heat.

Armies of houseflies and mosquitoes, in particular, are recruited during a heat wave to inflict as much pain and damage as they possibly can.

A housefly? Can a tiny, insignificant little housefly kill a human being? They simply irritate us and buzz around a picnic or a barbecue, interrupting our meal. They do more than that.

Flies are able to spread over 200 known pathogens and dozens of parasites. Think of typhoid, dysentery, cholera, diphtheria, and food poisoning, among others. All killers caused mainly by the innocuous fly which simply flies away, quite content, unless we chase it with our fly swatter with a vengeance.

We cannot kill all flies. In fact, we must not.

Plants are pollinated in many different ways, but insect pollinated plants such as apples, pears, cucumbers, watermelon, and almonds, need the fly or else they will become significantly less, perhaps fail altogether if not for the pollination of a housefly.

We are caught in a dilemma. A housefly left in your room can spread filth, disease, so do get rid of it as fast as you can, before it starts to lay its eggs that can mature very quickly in the heat, then you will have hundreds to deal with.

Have you ever noticed how a housefly can just silently sit on your skin? It is attracted to your body heat, to the sweat and salt, to carbon dioxide which you breathe out, and the more you sweat, the more you attract flies. Be extra careful of hovering fly, if you have a wound or a sore. The larvae they hatch burrow into the skin causing severe damage.

Flies land on faecal matter, dead animals, food scraps and manure. Who knows where that fly in your room was before it invaded your space and what deadly bacteria it collected. Its life expectancy is between 15 and 30 days, but woe to the harm it can inflict during its lifetime.

Flies are useful only outside in natural surroundings, in gardens, on trees, grass, fields, but not on your body or in your home.

All this seems banal when compared to its cousin, the angel of death.

She bides her time, hiding in a secluded, dark corner. Her exquisite legs are restless, aching to take off. She has her eyes focused on you. No human can resist her. Your very movements entice her. The heat of your body guides her. She marks the spot and suddenly without warning, she stabs your gentle skin with her sharp probes.

As they enter your skin, her saliva flows into the wound, preventing your blood from clotting. She sips her cocktail with ease, holding very still as she sucks three times her weight of your precious blood. Slowly she pulls her probes out and flies away, satiated and content.

You, like millions of others around the world, have been bitten by a female mosquito. Allergic to her saliva, you try to catch her, but she gracefully escapes, leaving you scratching an irritating itch. If you are really unlucky, she will kill you.

The female blood-sucker will then lay 100 to 300 eggs at a time, in or near water, swamps, marshes, pools, or lakes. The eggs need moisture to hatch, ready to kill more and more humans.

Should science not be the policeman that punishes such killers?

Science is trying hard to eliminate or decrease the mosquito population which resides everywhere on the planet, except Antarctica. They thrive wherever they are found.

Not only is our modern technology helpless regarding this human foe, quite the contrary. Our mobility and progressive lifestyle has aided the little pest to travel on ships, planes, trains, and automobiles, spreading havoc worldwide.

The war between the female killer and the man continues.

According to the US Centre for Disease Control, “it is the deadliest animal in the world.”

It has killed billions of people throughout history, more than all the wars of the universe combined. Some claim it has killed half of all humans that have ever lived.

Diseases borne by the mosquito include dengue, Zika, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus and most of all, malaria. Malaria cases can reach 300 million annually, of which 400,000 to one million die, mostly children.

Not all 3,500 species of mosquitos buzzing around you are killers — only three — Anopheles, Aedes, and Culex do the deadly deed.

It is estimated that there are 110 trillion of these deadly animals that inject and kill.

Where there are humans, there are mosquitoes. They depend on us for their survival. Were we to disappear, many species would likely become extinct.

We know enough to take precautions against the brutal killer that gets away with murder, even prospers.

It is science’s responsibility to kill the killers for us to survive, before they ultimately destroy us.


“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (1935-)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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