Canadian book on mosquitoes tells how the big itch came to the New World

By Stephen Weir

          Timothy Winegard

This is the last year for the RBC Charles Taylor Prize. The non-fiction Canadian book prize is closing down in March after marking 20-years of rewarding the country’s best authors.

The Prize recently announced the last five authors on the shortlist to win the Prize.  One of their books, Timothy Winegard’s history of the Mosquito will have Caribbean readers itching to buy insect spray and install bug proof screens.

The female mosquito has, through history, killed more people with her bite than all the wars in the history of man. In the Caribbean, where the fears of dengue, malaria, West Nile and sickle cell, grow, the mosquito is to blame.

Dr. Winegard is a Sarnia born, hockey-loving historian who now teaches at the Colorado Mesa University.  He has served in both the Canadian and British Armed Forces and knows about war. He says the world is losing the battle against the mosquito, our deadliest predator.

Mosquito is a fascinating, fact-based and timely overview of how mosquitos have impacted our life histories.  It has always been the carrier of fatal diseases, the killer of communities, a factor in wars, a crippler of economies and “killing nearly half of humanity along the way”.

As we are finding, the former pesticides we used to spray are now almost useless.  These tiny vampires adapt and evolve. The author asks, what are our chances?  He answers his own question with: Not Good.

In the Caribbean it was in the 17th century that the slave trade introduced disease carrying mosquitos to the Islands. Fatality rates of arriving ships was devastating with 85% of crew and living cargo dropping dead from outbreaks of Yellow Fever.

“The salty sea stories of ghost ships like the Flying Dutchmen,”he writes “are based on true accounts. Whole crews would succumb to yellow fever, months passing before the aimlessly drifting ships were recovered.  Boarding parties were greeted with nothing but the stench of death and the rattle of skeletons with no revealing clues to the cause.”

Sickle-cell anemia, according to the author, evolved as the body’s defense against contracting malaria.  It was protection with a price. Malaria was kept at bay but the life span of people with SCA is dramatically shortened. 

Slaves who were taken to the Caribbean brought malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases with them, infecting the mosquito populations that were infection free. The islands population suffered a terrible price in deaths and sickness.  

Three hundred years later, the tools to fight mosquitos are losing their effect – new bug born diseases are appearing. Although it doesn’t seem like it, the Caribbean is under attack.

The Charles Taylor Prize winner will be revealed at a special 20th Anniversary gala luncheon on Monday March 2, 2020. Dr. Winegard will be in Toronto for that event.  He, and the four other short listed authors will be speaking at a free Harbourfront  evening lecture on Thursday, February 27th  He will be talking about mosquitos. Are you itching to go?

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