The world’s deadliest animal does not possess extraordinary strength. It hasn’t got razor-sharp teeth or piercing vision, or the ability to outwit its prey. In fact, the world’s deadliest animal has none of the attributes we might associate with a ferocious killer. It can be found quietly moving around our houses, sometimes hovering above us in the air at night.
It may seem little more than a mundane inconvenience, but the humble mosquito has killed more people than all of the wars in human history. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year because of these creatures, which carry some of the most destructive diseases known to humankind.
Indeed, despite our superior strength, brain power and resources, we are still very much locked in a global battle with mosquitos – and the outcome could still go either way.
Mosquitos have to feed on blood in order to reproduce. They do this by injecting a needle-like appendage into their victim and inserting saliva into the wound. It is this process that spreads disease-causing agents like malaria and dengue fever – mosquitos are generally immune to these pathogens, but once inside the human body they can be fatal.
So why have we struggled so much to counteract the deadly impact of these tiny creatures? Well, there are over 3,000 different species of mosquito in the world, and quadrillions of individual mosquitos. Each one will bite multiple people in its lifetime. And thanks to global travel and climate change, we’re seeing new pathogens and new species showing up in places that they never inhabited before.
An Oxford University study recently found that a multi-drug resistant strain of malaria has emerged in parts of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – a development that could lead to a significant surge in mosquito-related deaths. This combination of factors makes for a highly effective disease-spreading agent that is near impossible to fully control.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Efforts are underway to push back against mosquito-borne illness, and charities like the Gates Foundation have had a hugely beneficial impact on the communities most affected by disease. The Against Malaria Foundation also does incredible work protecting people from malaria by distributing mosquito nets, currently the most effective means of prevention.
Thanks to public health interventions, improved diagnostics and treatment, and infrastructure improvements, we’ve seen the malaria mortality rate decrease by 60% since 2010.
New vaccine trials are currently underway in sub-Saharan Africa using a drug which is thought to be significantly more effective than previous ones. Innovative approaches to counteracting mosquito-borne disease are also being explored. Didcot-based company Oxitec is trialling a programme in which mosquitos that are engineered to die before adulthood are released into the wild. If these mosquitos successfully integrate with the wider population, the species could lose its ability to effectively transmit disease.
So there is real reason to hope for success in the war on mosquito-borne disease. These tiny creatures may be pernicious killers, but they’re not unbeatable. From public health initiatives to early stage research, it will take a lot to give us the upper hand, but it can be done.
This is no easy battle. Like the humble mosquito, we also lack ferocious physical attributes. But we do have some advantages that the world’s most deadly killer does not. We have brains, we have ideas, and most importantly of all, we have science on our side.
A version of this article was originally published in the Oxford Mail.