American History: A Story of Mosquito-Borne Disease

When you think of a deadly animal what comes to mind? Sharks? Rattlesnakes? Crocodiles? These animals may result in some human deaths but they are far from the deadliest creatures out there. So what’s the “big” killer?— you guessed it, mosquitoes. 

Mosquito-borne diseases kill between half a million and 2.7 million people each year. You’ve probably heard of some of these before: Zika virus, West Nile Virus, dengue, and malaria. To top that off, millions more suffer from these diseases every year but don’t die. 

When most Americans think about mosquito-borne diseases they think of public health issues in southeast Asia or central Africa. Yet, many Americans don’t know that diseases like yellow fever and malaria used to plague our country. 

Historical documents, letters, news articles and books confirm that U.S. citizens were dying left and right from mosquitoes.

1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Outbreak 

Shortly after the U.S became its own independent country, the unusually hot and humid summer of 1793, coupled with poor sewage and waterway infrastructure, created the breeding grounds for deadly mosquitoes. 

At the time, doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused the yellow fever outbreak. As thousands of people lay sick or dying, a panic broke out and Philadelphians fled from the city. Alexander Hamilton came down with the fever but survived. Meanwhile, George Washington quickly retreated to Mount Vernon. Others, especially the poor, weren’t so lucky. 

The Civil War

Mosquito-borne diseases seem to pop up at the most inopportune times—like the bloodiest war in American history. As the Union fought the Confederacy, yellow fever but especially malaria, tormented soldiers. 

Nicknamed “gallinippers” by some soldiers, mosquitoes tormented its victims day and night for months on end. Soldiers were not only sick and dying from malaria, but also unwell because they couldn’t fall asleep at night due to constant swarms of mosquitoes. 

The Union Army recorded over 1.3 million cases and 10,000 deaths from malaria. However, the Confederacy likely saw more deaths because the Union blockaded commerce to the south which included shipments of the anti-malaria drug, quinine.

The road to eradication

Army Surgeon Major Walter Reed, a veteran of the Spanish-American war, had seen the destruction of yellow fever. Records of the war indicate that more soldiers died of diseases (especially yellow fever and malaria) than combat. 

Reed and three other specialists formed a commission to study yellow fever, determine how it was transmitted, and to eradicate it. 

With the help of volunteers, including Reed’s staff, the commission discovered that the Aedes Aegypti mosquito spread yellow fever. This was a medical breakthrough at the time. The Army used their data and analysis to curb yellow fever in North America as well as Latin America. 

Around the same time, Major Ronald Ross proved that Malaria was caused by mosquitoes. This breakthrough led to mosquito control in Panama which allowed workers to complete the Panama Canal. 

An integrated mosquito program was strictly enforced to curb malaria:

  • Workers were given quinine 
  • Stagnant water near villages and homes was drained
  • Tall grasses and brush (hiding places for mosquitoes) was cut near villages
  • Screens were added to buildings
  • Oil was put on top of water to kill larvae (not a practice that we would recommend now)

We have come a long way

He said that two of them could whip a dog, and that four of them could hold a man down; except help come, they would kill him-”butcher him,” as he expressed it. – Mark Twain, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

When we look back on American history we can see that mosquitoes played a large role in the daily lives of people. 

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. Although mosquito-borne diseases still kill people in the United States, our rate of disease is quite low today because of advanced medical treatments and integrated pest management.

Although Teton County has the vector for West Nile Virus, we have worked diligently to keep it at bay. Our mosquito abatement program is here for you this summer.

If you have any concerns about mosquitoes near you, use our alert system: text MOSQUITO22 to 313131.