Malaria, Zika and the Washington Monument

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In 1882, in an address to the American Philosophical Society, the superbly named Albert Freeman Africanus King proposed that Congress encircle Washington DC with a wire mesh to the height of the Washington Monument to test his theory that mosquitoes were the cause of the malaria fevers then endemic to the post-antebellum city. Though born in England, King had been present at the Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot and, according to some reports, had been the first physician to come to the aid of the felled president, so you would have thought lawmakers would have looked favorably on his proposal. Unfortunaely, while King listed 19 reasons why he believed mosquitoes were the vector of malaria, his proposition was laughed out of court (it was only in 1898 that another Englishman, Ronald Ross, demonstrated King was right).

I could not help thinking of King last week when, in an extraordinarly short sighted move, House Republicans voted to slash Obama’s bill for emergency funding to fight Zika, a similarly debilitating disease also spread by mosquitoes. Not only that but the House insisted that the $622 million, versus the $1.9m Obama had requested, be offset by cuts to other vital health programs, including those for Ebola. Apparently, some Republicans do not consider Zika a major health crisis. This, despite the fact that last week the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention confirmed there is now sufficient evidence to definitively say that Zika is the cause of microcephaly, the heartbreaking cranial deformities seen in infants born to infected mothers in Brazil and elsewhere – Brazil has seen 1, 200 such births since last October, as against 163 in a normal year; if that’s not a health crisis I don’t know what is.

One hopes that Zika won’t become similarly prevalent in the US, but we shouldn’t bet against it. In states like Florida and Texas, and even on the banks of the Potomac in Washington DC, conditions are perfect for the Aedes mosquitoes that transmit the virus. The CDC is currently monitoring 279 pregnant women in the US and territories such as Puerto Rico for confirmed or suspected Zika infections. Trapping and baiting of mosquitoes is also underway in Houston and other southern cities, however not on anything like the scale needed. Erecting a screen around the Washington Monument would not help those cities, but as a symbol of the scale of the health challenge facing the Americas it would be hard to imagine a more dramatic gesture. After all, if Trump can build a wall to keep Mexicans from entering the US, erecting a wire mesh around DC should be child’s play. By the way, King was apparently named Africanus “because of his father’s admiration” for that continent, not for the parasitical diseases that breed there.

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