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How Mosquitoes Helped Us Win the American Revolution

Mosquitoes did not exist in the Americas at all before 1492. Historians speculate that they arrived from West Africa on the transatlantic slave ships during the Columbian Exchange. Gradually, the mosquito colonized parts of the Americas with inviting breeding grounds, and for centuries they have wreaked havoc on the human populace as the primary carrier for yellow fever, malaria, and the dengue virus.

The particular breed of mosquito that carries yellow fever is Aedes aegypti, also known as the “yellow fever mosquito.” This breed has a strong preference for human blood, making it an efficient spreader of human disease. The fact that it likes to hang around human activities distinguishes it from the thousands of other mosquito species, making it, in effect, a domesticated animal. Because the Aedes aegypti prefers humans, this breed of mosquito will lay its eggs in containers such as pots, barrels, wells, or water tanks.

The Fervor of “the Fever”

Although the mosquito is small, its ability to spread yellow fever have actually decided the fate of great empires. In 1697, the kingdom of Scotland attempted to establish a trading colony on the Caribbean shore of Panama, called New Caledonia. New Caledonia offered a generous share of the profits to anyone who was willing to work in the new Pacific and Atlantic trading networks. Unfortunately, the Scots’ immune systems were unprepared for yellow fever, dengue, and malaria. Sadly, within two years, 70 percent of the 2500 eager Scottish volunteers were dead.

At end of the 18th century, the mosquitoes actually helped the American colonies win their liberty from Britain. Because the British troops had almost no experience with malaria, they had no resistance to it. On the contrary, some American militiamen and much of the Continental Army had grown up in the South and faced malaria every summer of their lives. In the summer of 1780, the British Army suffered a malaria epidemic. This was particularly intense in South Carolina and there were many times when half of the British Army was too sick to move. No one knew that mosquitoes carried malaria, and the British did not have the means to combat it.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

The next year, in 1781, the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, decided to move his army north into the hills of Virginia, in order to avoid “the fatal sickness which so nearly ruined the army” the summer before. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, malaria still took hold of his army later that summer and once again, over 50 percent of his men were too sick to stand duty. The New England Continental Army and its French allies stayed healthy until the surrender, partly due to the fact that they had only just arrived in Virginia and malaria had not had time to do its worst. Also, many of them were resistant because of prior experience with malaria. Cornwallis surrendered in October of that year, which, in effect, decided the outcome of the American Revolution. Thus, we can say with confidence that it was fever-spreading mosquitoes that helped determine our American independence.

The Nuisance Exposed

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that mosquitoes were finally exposed as the perpetrators of malaria, yellow fever, and dengue. When this was discovered, antidotes spread like wildfire. The American government provided a budget to eradicate mosquitoes, and researchers set to work on creating pesticides, like DDT. By the 1940s the mosquito population was finally under control.

Today, mosquitoes are once again inhabiting populated areas, giving rise to environmental concerns with the chemicals used to eradicate them. Thanks to modern medicine, citizens of developed countries do not have to be concerned about epidemics of yellow fever and malaria. However, the government and private companies alike continue to find solutions to reduce the chance of suffering uncomfortable mosquito bites. With the advance of new technology, Mosquito Curtains hopes to join many others in providing protection in the great outdoors.

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