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    Prison life brings home to a man how nature carries on its quiet, care-free life quite unconcerned,
    and makes one feel almost sentimental towards animal and plant life--except for flies; I can't work
    up any sentiment about them!
        -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God : Letters and Papers from Prison

If I were to say to you that this book tells you everything you need to know about mosquitoes, your initial reaction, like mine, would likely be that you already know too much : they are damned annoying pests.  But Andrew Spielman, a Harvard professor, and his coauthor, Michael D'Antonio, have produced a concise and very interesting volume about the mosquito that is well worth reading.  The secret of their success lies in the fact that though Professor Spielman obviously feels that the mosquito is fascinating in its own right, the book focusses more on the deadly interaction between the bugs, the various diseases they transmit, and humankind.  At a time when the whole Northeast braces to see where birds are dying of West Nile virus, this makes the book quite topical.

In a sense, the book has a tragic, or potentially tragic, arc to it.  After some introductory material about mosquitoes, the authors go on to discuss the truly heroic efforts that were made to identify the cause of malaria, and once mosquitoes were identified as the culprits, to combat this pest.  Eventually, this led to a wholesale effort to eradicate the disease entirely, an effort which obviously failed, despite some marked successes.  In this section of the book Spielman is refreshingly forthright about the reasons for the ultimate failures and about what worked and what didn't.  Essentially, success was predicated on : draining water sources that in the past had been allowed to stagnate; installing screens in homes and using netting at night; pouring oil on the standing water where mosquitoes breed; and brief but aggressive use of insecticides, like DDT; made it possible to limit and in some cases eliminate malaria outbreaks in human populations.  It was not actually necessary to wipe out the mosquitoes, merely to deny them easy contact with already diseased humans.

But in recent decades a number of factors have combined to deter the application of these techniques.  The most obvious has been the hysteria over DDT and other insecticides, much of it stirred up by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring.  The wild overreaction to potential problems with the way in which these chemicals were being used fifty years ago has made it difficult to deploy one of our most effective weapons in the fight against mosquitoes.  Problems have also arisen because eradication programs are seen as interfering with the rights of natives and have been perceived as part of the broader imperialist, racist, hegemonic, imposition of Western will on Third World nations.  Also, though the book does not discuss it, the current fetishisizing of wetlands seems as if it must inevitably create situations where human populations are once again living in close proximity to the miasmic waters where mosquitoes breed, a frightening reversal of the long and arduous drainage process that had done so much to limit this kind of contact.

Meanwhile, man has continued to expand his reach into the remotest corners of the globe, in the process being exposed to rarer and less well understood diseases than malaria.  At the same time, air travel and shipping (particularly of old tires, as the reader will be fascinated to find out) have served to spread both mosquitoes and these diseases throughout the world.  Such are the elements that went into the appearance of West Nile virus in New England over the past few years.

Mosquito discusses this history and the many issues involved in a clear and fair fashion.  The authors avoid easy blame-casting and are generous--perhaps overgenerous--in assessing folks motives, but they make it quite obvious that we've placed ourselves in a dangerous situation.  After a years long struggle against the mosquito, we seem to be quite consciously ignoring everything we've learned, to have surrendered our most effective weapons in the struggle against one of nature's most potent disease vectors.   The book concludes with a series of eminently sensible steps that we can all take, and steps that public health officials must take, in order for man to coexist with mosquitoes, without putting ourselves at unnecessary and potentially disastrous risk.  Even if most of us will feel that some of the motivation for these measured steps stems from a little to great a respect and fondness for the mosquito on Spielman's part, it is nonetheless true that by the end of the book, he's made a compelling case that, even if we won't all love them as he does, we are likely to have to accept the idea that, however bothersome, they will always be with us.  His suggestions are sensible and moderate enough that it seems like that we should be able to do so.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Michael D'Antonio Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The State Boys Rebellion (Simon Says)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of State Boys Rebellion
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Institutional Rebellion (The Connection, 7/08/2004)
    -ESSAY: America's Deep, Dark Secret (60 Minutes, May 2, 2004, CBS)
    -ARCHIVES: "michael d'antonio" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The State Boys Rebellion by Michael D'Antonio (Michael Walton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of State Boys Rebellion (Norman Fost, M.D., M.P.H., New England Journal Of Medicine)
    -REVIEW: of State Boys Rebellion (Mary Wiltenburg, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of State Boys Rebellion (Neal Karlen, Minneapolis Star Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of State Boys Rebellion (Edwin H. Kolodny, Neurology Today)
    -REVIEW: of State Boys Rebellion (Robert L. Osgood, History of Education Quarterly)
    -ARTICLE:Six assigned to state school seek apology: Men were classified as 'morons' as result of flawed test in 1950s (Scott Allen, May 19, 2004, Boston Globe)

Book-related and General Links:
    -CV : Spielman, Prof. Andrew (Harvard)
    -Andrew Spielman Webpage
    -BOOK SITE : Mosquito by Andrew Spielman, Sc.D., and Michael D'Antonio (Hyperion)
    -REVIEW : of Mosquito (Kenan Malik, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Mosquito By Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio (FRITZ LANHAM , Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Mosquito. By Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of Mosquito (Jerome Burns, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW : of  Mosquito: a Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe by Andrew Spielman & Michael D'Antonio (Hilary Spurling, booksonline uk)

    -Mosquito-borne Viruses (Harvard School of Public Health)
    -Malaria: General Information (Centers for Disease Control)
    -Arboviral Encephalitides (Centers for Disease Control)
    -West Nile Virus (USDA)
    -ESSAY : Working Toward Disarmament : Researchers hope their basic research leads to destruction of mosquitoes' weaponry (Harvey Black, The Scientist, June 12, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Wonders: Roll Back Malaria  (Philip & Phyllis Morrison, Scientific American, January 2000)
    -ESSAY : When a pest turns menace : Be on the lookout for more outbreaks of deadly mosquito-borne disease (Jim Morris, U.S. News, April 3, 2000)
    -REVIEW : of The Malaria Capers More Tales of Parasites and People, Research and Reality By Robert S. Desowitz (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE COMING PLAGUE Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance By Laurie Garrett  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : THE COMING PLAGUE Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. By Laurie Garrett (Stephen S. Hall, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES : Mosquito (Mag Portal)