The thing about mosquitoes... (World Malaria Day 2013)

The thing about mosquitoes is that they are so wily.

Mosquitoes rise to unfathomable heights of wiliness with their crafty attempts to suck your blood and cover your body in enormous, itchy welts. They find you no matter how secure your mosquito net, no matter how long your clothing, no matter how high the altitude to which you climb…. They will find you!

Wait a minute, you don't get a golf ball-sized lump wherever you are bitten by a mosquito? Your eye does not swell shut if cunning wee buzzers bite you anywhere on your face? You don't get bitten by mosquitoes at 8,000 feet above sea level? Or on planes?

mosquitoe eyeliner
This is an example of my relationship with mosquitoes. The snapshot was intended to capture my sparkly teal eyeliner for a Friday Fluff Feature. In the same moment the photo was taken, a mosquito landed next to my eye and bit me! You can see it there! Of course, this caused my eye to swell shut immediately. (Fashion tip: Teal eyeliner does not look as good when your eye is swollen shut.)

Once upon a time, when I sharing a flat in Mexico City with two of my female friends, I woke up in the middle of the night because a mosquito had bitten me on the lip. (Mind you, this was an urban highrise in which mosquitoes were not expected to invade the 25th floor flats.)

In my sleepy swatting and attempts to figure out what was going on that had awaken me and was making it difficult for me to move my lips, my poor bedmate was also forced out of her dreams. Even in the darkness, she could see that something had gone terribly wrong with my lower lip (ala, very, very bad collagen implants.) As I stumbled to the bathroom to try to look at myself in the mirror, I accidentally woke up my other friend, who noted across the dark room that my lip was swollen up like a large piece of fruit. "What is wrong with your mouth?" she called from her bed.

Confronting the swollen disfigurement of my face in the mirror (Permanent duck face! Except with apricot-sized lips!), I had only two thoughts: First, I was beyond thankful that my big presentation at the international AIDS conference had taken place earlier that day. Speaking at a massive conference with this kind of deformity would rattle even the smoothest public speaker. Second, I began to realize that my tongue was swelling too, and that this could eventually cause bigger problems than the insult to my vanity. Benadryl to the rescue to keep me breathing! (And some middle-of-the night calculations about the best way to get myself an epi-pen at 3am in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, if it came to that.)

The wily quest of the mosquitoes to feast on my flesh is not a myth. Mosquitoes really do prefer some people to other people. And we don't know why! You can read all about the science of why mosquitoes hate me in Don't Swallow Your Gum.

The other thing about mosquitoes is that, in some parts of the world, they carry around this terrible little parasite that causes malaria.

Because mosquitoes love me with such an undying, passionate love and because they are wily enough to find uncovered parts of my skin across dozens of countries and several continents and even on airplanes, I have to think quite a bit about malaria.  (I also have to think about malaria because I see children die from it, but I thought, "Why not leave the blog free of stories of dying and sick children for today?")

When I am in Kenya, I take a medicine every day to protect me from getting malaria. I use a bednet that really does keep out most of the marauding mozzies. And in the parts of the country in which there are swarms of wily, vicious, relentless attackers, I coat myself in thick DEET repellant. These things work! In my 9 years in Kenya, I have never gotten malaria. (Because of my tendency to acquire sicknesses and minor injuries, especially in Kenya, my closest doctor friends will tell you this is an amazing accomplishment.)


Here is the thing to remember on World Malaria Day 2013 -- we know how to prevent malaria! We know how to wipe it out. We used to have malaria in the United States. In Ithaca, New York, for example, (home to my much-loved alma mater of Cornell University) malaria once plagued the banks of Cayuga's waters, but we wiped it out with proper sanitation and insecticide treatment.

We know how to prevent malaria, and we know how to cure malaria. As an HIV researcher, I long for the day when I can say the same things about HIV.

We could make Africa as free of malaria as upstate New York. I believe we must try to do this. Because 660,000 people still die every year from malaria and most of them are children under 5. Africa bears the brunt of this disease; 90% of those 660,000 deaths were in Africa. 219 million people get sick from malaria every year, some of them very, very sick. I don't think that is ok when we know how to prevent and cure a disease.

Yes, I would enjoy a respite from my itchy, deforming welts. But what we really need is NO MORE CHILDREN DYING from the parasite inside these wily buzzing pests.

Bednets. They keep kids alive and smiling.
Bednets. They keep kids alive and smiling.

We're working on it. In Africa, malaria deaths have been cut by one third in the last 10 years. In countries where access to malaria control interventions has improved most significantly, overall child mortality rates have fallen by approximately 20%. Less dying children is good for the entire world. There is no better investment.

Invest in the future: defeat malaria. And mosquitoes too.

Posted at 01:22


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