Gordon Patterson: Florida has fought epic battle against six-legged blood suckers

The war between people and mosquitoes must surely be one of nature’s epic conflicts. Each year mosquito-borne diseases bring suffering and death to hundreds of millions of people. Recently the World Health Organization estimated that a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds.

Emerging and re-emerging diseases such as dengue fever, dengue hemorrhagic fever, dengue shock syndrome, and encephalitides like West Nile fever pose a growing threat to people.

Florida has a special place in the history of our species struggle with six-legged, blood-sucking pests. Long before Count Dracula, the Sunshine State earned a reputation as a kind of Transylvania in the sub-tropics. Mosquitoes, in fact, nearly blocked Florida’s admission to the Union. Virginia Rep. John Randolph opposed Florida’s statehood because he felt nothing good could come from a land of “quagmires, frogs, alligators, and mosquitoes.”

In 1929, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston echoed Randolph’s pessimism in near-Biblical terms. For Hurston, Florida’s mosquitoes were evidence of human’s fall and Satan’s claim on the Sunshine State.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, mosquito-borne diseases regularly inflicted pain and suffering. Yellow fever epidemics repeatedly occurred in Jacksonville, Pensacola and Key West. Much of north Florida was part of a “malaria belt” that stretched across the South. In 1920, Florida’s sanitary engineer estimated that in Taylor County, 65 percent of the population suffered from malaria. Two years later, dengue fever swept across the state infecting more than a 250,000 people.

The epidemic galvanized interest in mosquito control. In December 1922, 150 mosquito warriors met in Daytona and organized the Florida Anti-Mosquito Association. Three years later, Alex MacWilliam and James Vocelle of Vero Beach led the legislative fight to create mosquito abatement districts. That June, newly formed Indian River County established Florida’s first mosquito control district. Today there are 61 mosquito control programs in the state.

Mosquito control transformed Florida. Malaria and yellow fever were vanquished. Mosquito control forced pest and nuisance mosquitoes to retreat.

There were costs. Some mosquito control projects were poorly planned. In the 1940s and 1950s, overreliance on insecticides such as DDT harmed nontarget species. Today, organizations like the American Mosquito Control Association and the Florida Mosquito Control Association strive to find ways of controlling mosquitoes in a way that protects the environment while promoting the public health.

Mosquito control faces formidable challenges in the 21st century. In 2001, West Nile virus arrived in Florida. This spring there was an outbreak of dengue fever in Key West.

There is a desperate need for research into new control and surveillance strategies at a time in which local, state, and federal authorities have reduced funding for public health initiatives. One thing is certain. If the challenges of emerging and reemerging mosquito-borne diseases are to be met, they will require citizens who understand the achievements and limitations of mosquito control. As the swarms of summer begin to rise, it is only right that we reflect on our shared responsibility to fight the bite.

Patterson, author of two books on mosquitoes, is a professor of history at Florida Institute of Technology.


Florida Mosquito Control


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