By Andre B. Sobocinski, historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
Over the course of the U.S. Navy’s history the mosquito has been a constant threat whose enduring swath of destruction far extends that of the Barbary Pirates, the Imperial Japanese fleet or even German U-boats.
From the Navy’s first conflict – in the so-called Quasi-War with France (1797-1801) – our small fleet was deployed to the tropical climes of the West Indies where they engaged in warfare with French privateers.
Medical logs from these first Navy ships are full of cases of “Ague,” “Fever and Ague,” “Bilious Fever,” “Inflammatory Fever,” “Intermittent Fever,” “Remittent Fever,” and “Putrid, Malignant Ship Fever” – all archaic terms for mosquito-borne illnesses.
The story of the armed merchant ship USS Delaware offers an example of the impact mosquitoes had in the Quasi- War. On an unseasonably warm day in December 1799, the Delaware limped into the port of Curacao with its crew incapacitated with “fever.”
Over the next month some 130 members of the ship’s complement—a staggering 72 percent of the crew!—was infected with this fever. The ship’s physician, Surgeon’s Mate Samuel Anderson, described attending to patients under a stale air punctured by the “offensive effluvia” of bilge water. This was an age when some diseases were still associated with atmospheric conditions, noxious vapors and “miasma” (“pollution” or “bad air.”)
Anderson established a temporary hospital on shore where his patients were exposed to more “salubrious conditions” and subject to the standard practices of the day—a combination of purgatives and bloodletting.
Although, the concept of Germ Theory and the idea of mosquito-transmitted diseases were still decades away, Anderson came very close to identifying the cause of the malady. He prophetically noted that among his patients: “Eruptions of various kinds appeared. That which was most common and struck my attention most, was in every respect similar to musquitoe [sic] bites.”
Throughout the history of the world the ancient creature called the mosquito has been the scourge of humankind, spreading more illness and causing more death with a simple bite than any other living organism past or present.
In 2014, The Gates Foundation identified the mosquito as the “deadliest animal” in the world causing more deaths a year than sharks, snakes, and humans combined.
Of the more than 3,000 species of mosquito, three can be credited as the most proficient killers—the female of the Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex genera.
These little mosquitos are responsible for transmitting a host of viruses including Chikungunya, Dengue, Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria, West Nile, Yellow Fever, and most recently Zika.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year hundreds of millions of people are infected with these diseases and several million die.
Next time, we will be focusing on the tiny death-dealer and the Navy’s own plight against it—from an early medical investigation into a mosquito-borne disease (1823) to the epidemics that shaped the service to the unsung mosquito fighters who pioneered the concepts of prevention, education and research.
It is a fight that is as old as the Navy itself and one marked by many hallmarks, innovations and heroics.