June 20, 2014
Mosquitoes Killed Half Of All People That Ever Lived?
As far as it is possible to accurately measure these things, it is widely accepted that half of all humans who ever lived were killed by mosquitoes. I am even more interested in this fascinating fact than I would usually be for two reasons: I am currently in Africa and have just left a malarial area, and I have been reading about the important work that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing to help reduce the numbers of deaths caused by malaria.
The statement should be qualified, first be saying that mosquitoes do not actually kill; it is the diseases they carry that are the danger. They include Japanese encephalitis, as well as many other variations of encephalitisuseses* (*may not be an actual scientific term), dengue fever, yellow fever, Rift Valley fever and West Nile virus, but malaria is by far the most commonly fatal. Also, although plenty of scientists support the ‘half of all people’ claim, it has been questioned widely, too. Within the space of a week, I heard it both confidently claimed and assuredly rejected by the BBC, although within different programs. Whatever the reality, it is safe to say that mosquitoes are bloody scary.
Doctors are noticing increasing numbers of deaths in Europe from malaria amongst people returning from their travels. This is put down to the fact that more and more people are traveling to adventurous places, but that simultaneously the increasing normality of travel to these parts of the world gives people the misleading impression that they are somehow less dangerous than they used to be. It may be the case that some countries with security problems have done much to reduce the risk to tourists in popular areas — for example in Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, which are included in my own trip — but that doesn’t mean that mosquitoes are now too embarrassed to venture into five star hotels. I am taking malaria tablets and put on repellent every evening, but did consider not taking the medication, given the side effects. On my first trip to a malarial area, I would never have dreamed of such flippancy.
But anti-malarial medication can only be taken for a certain length of time, and for Westerners working in risk areas over the long term, the only option is to cover up and be aware of the possibility of catching malaria, for example being aware that it can just feel like a cold or a hangover. With quick treatment, it should be curable, but it is a constant risk to people — ironically including those who wish to help the local population in their battle against various health concerns.
But brave and noble Westerners are, of course, not the primary risk groups of mosquito-borne illness. Forty percent of the world’s population is born in malarial risk zones, and very few will have access to everything they need to reduce the threat to their health and possibly to their lives. This is one of the major things that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing to improve global health. They give us a good overview of the current state of malaria: “Malaria occurs in nearly 100 countries worldwide, exacting a huge toll on human health and imposing a heavy social and economic burden in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. An estimated 207 million people suffered from the disease in 2012, and about 627,000 died. About 90 percent of the deaths were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 77 percent were among children under age 5.”
However, they also tell us that investment, including their own significant financial contribution, has reduced the number of malaria deaths by 42 percent in the last 12 years as a result of “timely diagnosis and treatment using reliable diagnostic tests and effective drugs; indoor spraying with safe, long-lasting insecticides; and the use of bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticide to protect people from mosquito bites at night.” A fantastic contribution to the world, especially when compared with the pathetic amount given by the current heirs in the Wal-Mart family of “About 0.04% of the Waltons’ net worth of $139.9 billion,” according to Forbes. The Gates family has given almost half of their wealth to charitable causes.
So I suppose that regardless of the exact facts and figures regarding malaria in human history, three things are clear: we should still be vigilant about malaria when we travel to risk areas; malaria is still a huge problem, but can be greatly addressed with enough attention; and the Walton family are less likable than almost all people that ever lived.
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