“There has never been a more effective killing machine. Researchers estimate that mosquitoes have been responsible for half the deaths in human history. Malaria accounts for much of the mortality, but mosquitoes also transmit scores of other potentially fatal infections, including yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, lymphatic filariasis, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever, and several types of encephalitis. Despite our technical sophistication, mosquitoes pose a greater risk to a larger number of people today than ever before. Like most other pathogens, the viruses and parasites borne by mosquitoes evolve rapidly to resist pesticides and drugs.”
These quotes are from an informative and fascinating article on dengue fever [The New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012, pages 38-46] and a new approach to wiping out the species of mosquito—the Aedes aegypti—that carry it.
“As adults, the mosquitoes are eerily beautiful: jet black, with white spots on the thorax and white rings on their legs. Yet Aedes are among the deadliest creatures on earth. Before a vaccine was discovered in the nineteen-thirties, the mosquito transmitted the yellow-fever virus to millions of people, with devastating efficiency. During the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops suffered more casualties from yellow fever than from enemy fire. The mosquito also carries dengue, one of the most rapidly spreading viral diseases in the world. According to the World Health Organization, dengue infects at least fifty million people a year. For the fortunate, a case of dengue resembles a mild form influenza. But more than half a million people become seriously ill from the disease. Many develop dengue shock syndrome or a hemorrhagic fever that leaves them vomiting and, often, bleeding from the nose, mouth, or skin. The pain can be so excruciating that the virus has commonly invoked nickname: break-bone fever.”
There is no cure for dengue, not even any adequate treatment. We may be hearing more about it in the media because the Aedes has invaded the United States, bringing dengue, as our world has become increasingly globalized. Which raises three questions for me.
First, since I have not been particularly troubled by this problem while it remained primarily outside the U.S., is my interest in the topic now ethically compromised as a Christian?
Second, if the apparently best solution to the problem of eradicating the Aedes lies in releasing billions of genetically modified mosquitos into infected areas, does the benefit of this approach (Aedes populations drop dramatically) outweigh potential risks (though scientists have built in safeguards, no one can fully predict all possible effects the modified creatures will have once released into the wild)?
And third, many people fear this sort of advance in science. Rather than studying nature, they say, scientists here are playing God, not only seeking to change living creatures in fundamental ways, but seeking to wipe out an entire species. For the Christian, that translates into remembering that God called his creation “good” before the fall. Dengue fever is an obvious result of that fall, but that does not make the Aedes evil. Can we justify eradicating them? And if the answer is Yes, where is the bright line over which we will not step to destroy other species that we find troublesome?
Further reading: “Mosquitoes Remade” in Science News (July 14, 2012) pages 22-26; and the World Health Organization on dengue fever online (www.who.int/topics/dengue/en/)