Sometimes called the state bird, the mosquito plays a huge role in our history, our health, and our barbeque parties. Here in Mosquito County (the original name for Central Florida), the stinging insect is more than a name and a nuisance. The bites from these buzzing bugs can bring some pretty bad diseases, including encephalitis (brain inflammation), dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria. Like so many other illnesses, mosquito-borne infections are hardest on the most vulnerable: infants and seniors. Fortunately, public health actions have eliminated most mosquito-borne maladies in Florida other than the itchies. This is a great example of how many health problems can only be solved by a community approach, not by one-by-one interventions.
Dengue fever strikes with bone-aching fevers and intense behind-the-eyeballs pain, typically resolving in a few days. The worst form of dengue attacks the body’s blood-making abilities, causing severe bleeding and death. Isolated cases and small outbreaks have popped up periodically in the state, after several years’ disappearance.
The yellow fever virus, which is carried by female mosquitos, causes fever, chills, nausea, muscle pains, and general misery. The yellow fever vaccine given to travelers provides some protection, but widespread mosquito control is far more effective. When the 1888 yellow fever epidemic nearly shut down the city of Jacksonville, the Florida state government recognized the need for public health measures and created a board of health.
Malaria has plagued humankind since ancient times, with fever, chills, and flu-like illness that can progress to debilitation and death. King Tut had it. Hippocrates wrote a guide for treating “bad air,” which is what was considered the cause of malaria, not the mosquitos in the air. In more than 100 nations, more than 200 million people suffer from malaria. Without treatment, the malaria parasites can multiply, take over their victim’s blood, create severe complications and kill. Short time visitors to malaria-infected countries can take anti-malarial medication, but the only way to eliminate the disease is dramatically reduce the mosquito population by interrupting the reproductive cycle and drying up mosquito-breeding habitats.
Florida has its own history with malaria. In 1887, fear of malaria was so intense that most life insurance companies would not insure anyone south of Jacksonville. Workers attempting to build a canal across Florida in the 1900s were stopped by armies of malaria-carrying mosquitos. When malaria besieged the town of Perry, southeast of Tallahassee, in 1920, the state board of health and U.S. Public Health service developed a comprehensive mosquito control strategy still used today. They drained swamps, deployed mosquito larva-eating Gambusia minnows, and installed window screens on the houses. In 1922, the Florida Anti-Mosquito Association (FAMA) formed to continue the bug war. Florida saw its last native case of malaria in 1948. FAMA now continues its work as the Florida Mosquito Control Association (floridamosquito.org).
The disease-carrying mosquitos still buzz around Florida; the risk of mosquito-borne infections is real. Quietly, without fanfare or much recognition, public health heroes work to prevent these diseases, watching for a comeback of disease and keeping a lid on the mosquito population. Routinely, public health workers draw blood samples from sentinel chickens living in airy cages in our neighborhoods, monitoring any possible mosquito-borne infections in the chickens. Some communities spray to control the mosquitos. You can do your part by removing any sources of stagnant water where mosquitos can breed, keeping gutters cleaned out, buckets upside down and pools clean. We have come a long way since Central Florida carried the name “Mosquito County.”
If you are traveling to another country, be sure to sure to find out what vaccinations and malaria medications you might need. The Centers for Disease Control provide current information at cdc.gov/travel. Because malaria strains differ from one country to the next, it is critically important that you have a malaria medication specific to the area.