The recent Discovery Channel's Mosquito documentary provides an interesting breakdown of how mosquito populations are migrating to new locations in the world. This means certain mosquito-borne illnesses are expanding into areas of the world that have never seen them before. Such changes are leading to thorough discussions of how people should choose to try to control mosquito populations.
Threats to Humans
The Discovery Impact film Mosquito highlights the changes occurring with mosquito populations. And as the documentary points out, the new threats from mosquitos are growing more quickly than expected just a decade ago. Between 750,000 and 1 million people annually die from mosquito-borne illnesses, and many of them are children. This means mosquitos kill more humans annually than any other animal does.
The changes are becoming more difficult for experts to anticipate and predict as well. The documentary explains how increased international travel and trade has led to the spread of mosquitos, bringing different species to new parts of the world. Additionally, scientists in the documentary say the increase in temperatures from global warming allows mosquitos to migrate to and live in new locations. The Mosquito documentary is available on Discovery Channel's website for streaming viewing.
Benefits of Mosquitos
Understand that only a very small percentage of mosquito species, less than 1 percent, actually spread serious illnesses. More than 3,500 different species of mosquitos exist. Additionally, some mosquitos carry viruses, but they cannot transmit those viruses when they bite humans.
Mosquitos have benefits too. They feed on nectar, helping to pollenate plants. Many different animals feed on mosquitos, so eliminating all mosquitos would be detrimental to segments of the world's animal population. Because mosquito larvae live in water as aquatic insects, several aquatic animals also depend on mosquitos for food. Mosquitos also filter detritus, allowing plant life to grow.
Male mosquitos don't bite humans. Only females need the blood of humans or other animals to give them the protein they need to produce eggs. Still, those bites from females lead to between 750,000 and 1 million human deaths from mosquito-borne illnesses, so scientists are constantly looking for ways to reduce the insect's impact.
Reducing Mosquito Populations
Of course, because we cannot know by sight which mosquitos carry and transmit viruses and which don't, humans have to protect themselves from all types of mosquitos. The best solution is to try to prevent bites and remove habitats where mosquitos can breed near our homes. This starts by removing standing water where mosquitos lay eggs.
Scientists have attempted to develop other means of reducing the numbers of mosquitos, especially the species that most commonly carry illnesses. As shown in the Discovery Channel documentary, a set of scientists changed the genes of a species of mosquitos, causing its mates to lay empty eggs. It then released thousands of the mosquitos into the wild. Over the next several months, this experiment dropped the percentage of mosquitos in the area significantly.
Additionally, spraying and fogging areas where humans congregate can help reduce the possibility of receiving bites from mosquitos. Monitoring and controlling mosquito populations in warmer weather areas, such as the southern half of the United States, is important, although disease carrying mosquitos can be found in all 50 states at certain times of the year.
Battling Mosquito-Borne Diseases
The documentary discussed the current major mosquito-borne diseases and viruses, including chikungunya, dengue fever, malaria, West Nile, yellow fever and Zika. Some potential new viruses carried by mosquitos also could be appearing in larger numbers soon, including the Mayaro, o'nyong nyong and Rift Valley viruses. Discovery's documentary followed individuals who have been affected by mosquito-borne illnesses.
The documentary focused on the recent significant rise in the spread of the Zika virus, which initially migrated out of Africa in 1967 into Malaysia. Four decades later, the spread of Zika exploded, moving through islands in the Pacific Ocean and into Brazil. From there, it moved into the Northern Hemisphere, appearing in Puerto Rico and eventually a few cases were reported in Florida. Certainly, the number of cases in Florida are extremely low, but health officials there continue to take steps to combat the potential spread of the illness by working to reduce the mosquito population.
More than 2.5 billion people live in areas of the world where mosquitos have been spotted that have the potential to carry the Zika virus. The Mosquitos documentary followed a mother in Brazil who was caring for a baby with Zika and was pregnant with another baby, as she worried about whether the new baby also might have the Zika illness.
Another aspect of the documentary focused on a young Kenyan father and child, both of whom had contracted malaria. The son was hospitalized, but the father was neglecting his own care to help treat his son. More than half of the world's population is at risk for contracting malaria. And even though a vaccine exists that can offer a little bit of protection to people who are bitten by a mosquito infected with the malaria virus, malaria still accounts for about half of the world's annual deaths from mosquito-borne illnesses.
Work continues on developing vaccines to combat all mosquito-borne illnesses, but the process is extremely difficult. Even the malaria vaccine, which represents the most successful vaccine against mosquito-borne illnesses, only has an efficacy rate of between 26 percent and 50 percent. Some of the studies are focusing on using mosquito saliva as an ingredient in developing vaccines.
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