I have one word for those ardent religionists who rhapsodize that the only proof we need for the existence of God is the presence of our very wonderful world. That word is: Mosquitoes. There are many wonderful things about our planet, but mosquitoes aren’t one of them. Yet, if there were a god, it seems this god isn’t looking out for humanity — he’s looking out for mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes, not so jokingly deemed “the state bird,” were the bane of my childhood in Wisconsin. My generation spent most of our childhood summer vacations outdoors from dawn to (swarm-inducing) dusk. I’ve never been able to stop myself from scratching those maddeningly itchy bites, which on me often swell to alarming sizes. After attending Girl Scout camp one summer I was covered with unsightly bloody scratches from head to toe for weeks after. Even today, out of sheer self-defense (also trying to avoid exposure to DEET) I have to give up gardening and let the weeds grow once mosquitoes surface in our humid summers.
As a child, I often mused that life would be perfect if only there were no mosquitoes (evidence, yes, of a privileged childhood). I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, that these detested mosquitoes merely caused itching and chased me indoors from play. I later learned that mosquitoes spread not just tormenting bites, but malaria, and other deadly diseases around the world: yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus, elephantiasis,to name some. Even in Wisconsin there’s mosquito-borne La Crosse encephalitis, rare but frightening and often fatal.
What brings on my rant against mosquitoes out of season? News of yet another mosquito-borne disease: the Zika virus, which has caused more than 3,500 horrifying birth defects in South America, which affects the developing fetal brain, causing microcephaly, resulting in babies with undersized brains and heads. The Hawaii State Department just announced the first case of brain damage from the Zika virus within the United Sates: a baby born in a Oahu hospital with microcephaly. Its mother had been infected with the Zika virus while living in Brazil.
The virus, via mosquitoes, is making its way to Haiti, infiltrating Mexico and predicted to continue its northward march. And while the mosquito is an equal-opportunity predator, as always the poorest among us will suffer the most: those forced to live in unsanitary conditions and makeshift shelters.
The New York Times ran a heartbreaking report late last year with shocking photographs of a few of the 2,800 registered cases of babies born last year in Brazil with severely undersized heads, after their mothers were infected during pregnancy with Zika through a mosquito bite. The virus is insidious, rarely causing symptoms at the time of the bite, although one in five may get a mild rash or red eyes. Therefore most pregnant women bitten by a Zika-infected mosquito won’t even realize it. It’s believed pregnant women infected in the first trimester are likely to give birth to children with microcephaly.
In January, a leading Brazilian health official suggested that women in the hard-hit northeastern region postpone having babies. This is rich advice, considering that abortion is largely illegal in Catholic-dominated Brazil. Although Brazil’s Supreme Court legalized abortion for anencephaly in 2012, it’s unclear whether the Zika virus would be detectable in time for a prophylactic abortion, even if allowed in Brazil, since at this point scans aren’t useful for this congenital defect before 20 weeks. Here in Wisconsin, an unconstitutional ban on abortions at 20 weeks goes into effect in February (no exceptions for Zika virus or any other reason). Late-term abortions are difficult and expensive to obtain in much of the world. Maybe as the Thalidomide tragedy precipitated the fight for legal abortion in the early 1960s, this new pregnancy risk will help reason prevail in the late-term abortion debate.
Last Friday, federal health officials issued an advisory warning pregnant women in the United States to postpone traveling to 13 Latin American or Caribbean countries and Puerto Rico, in order to avoid mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus.
And get this: Travelers and residents of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are urged “to avoid mosquito bites.” Good luck with that.
The New York Times quoted Dr. Lyle R. Petersen, chief of vector-borne diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “We believe this is a fairly serious problem. This virus is spreading throughout the Americas.” The C.D.C. advisory applies to 14 Western Hemisphere countries and territories: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
With the summer Olympics taking place in Brazil in August, the Zika virus, named for the Ugandan forest where it was first identified, may become an international hazard. Already isolated cases have been found in the United States in travelers returning from Latin or South America.
The Zika virus joins other exotic blights carried by mosquitoes, such as dengue and chikungunya, which also will eventually threaten Puerto Rico, Florida and Gulf Coast states. In Brazil, the Zika virus compounds the misery caused by nearly 1.6 million cases of dengue there in 2015, with at least 839 people dying last year from it. (Dengue causes flu-like symptoms, but severe dengue causes organ impairment and terrifying hemorrhages.) Yellow fever, after it was believed eradicated in the 1950s, is resurfacing in Brazil, with some virologists blaming climate change.
Dengue is also surfacing in Hawaii, which, The New York Times reports, is conducting a “Fight the Bite” campaign, to avoid standing water and apply mosquito repellant.
Want proof there is no god—at least the god favored by Christian believers, who guides all things, answers prayer, “works for good” and whose eye is on that sparrow? (His eye apparently is on the mosquito.) Examine the photos of babies deformed and possibly doomed simply because their mothers were bitten by a bug. If such an outcome was planned by a deity, then it would be the work not of a loving god, but, as Thomas Paine pointed out, of a torturing demon. Of course, neither gods nor demons exist. Thus mosquitoes are only evidence not of a loving god but of opportunistic evolution. In the evolving arms race for survival of the fittest, in this case the parasitical viruses carried by the mosquitoes are, for the moment, the “fittest.”
Of course, it will not be prayers to a god or submission to “God’s will” that will mitigate or, better yet, eradicate mosquito-born disease. Such relief will come from scientific research, improved sanitation practices including to lift up the conditions of the impoverished, and the work of social welfare organizations, such as The Gates Foundation, co-founded by Bill Gates, notably a nonbeliever. The Gates Foundation has poured billions right now into practical programs to eradicate malaria, which will necessarily help eradicate other mosquito-borne illnesses. President Obama also announced a campaign against malaria in his State of the Union speech.
I’m not the only one to imagine how lovely the world would be without mosquitoes. A scientific survey by Janet Fang was published by Nature (July 21, 2010), in which she noted that the absence of mosquitoes, which Fang calls “an insect with few redeeming qualities,” would cause hardly a negative ripple in our ecosystem, and only improve the quality of life for humans and other animals beset by this nasty predator.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s signature billboard proclaims “Imagine No Religion.” I also like to “Imagine No Mosquitoes.”