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The History of Mosquito-Vectored Diseases in Humans

Mosquito-vectored diseases have been around for centuries, but the concept of disease transmission by mosquitoes was first recognized in 1877 by Sir Patrick Manson. While there are many types of mosquito-vectored diseases, here’s a quick look at the history of six common types.

Malaria
In a letter from Italy in 1740, Horace Walpole, derived the term “malaria” from the Italian ‘mal-aria" or “bad air” due to the belief it came on the wind from swamps and rivers. Likely originating in Africa, malaria was described by the Chinese as early as 2700 BC and by the Sumerians in 1700 BC. In the United States malaria wasn’t effectively controlled until the 1940s. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states there are between 350 and 500 million cases of malaria every year and one million deaths from the disease.

Chikungunya 
Derived from the Kimakonde (a Mozambique dialect) word meaning “that which bends up” (which describes the primary symptom, excruciating joint pain), “Chikungunya” is rarely fatal but has no vaccine. The first recorded outbreak of this disease may have been in 1779 and the virus was first discovered in Tanganyika, Africa, in 1952. Chikungunya outbreaks have occurred in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and have recently spread to Europe and the Americas.

Dengue
Dengue Fever, or Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, is found throughout the Americas, Asia and Africa. The name “dengue” may be derived from the Swahili phrase “Ka-dinga pepo”, meaning "cramp-like seizure caused by an evil spirit”. A Chinese medical encyclopedia from the Jin Dynasty (265–420 AD) is believed to contain the first recorded case of probable dengue fever, which referred to a “water poison” associated with flying insects. According to the WHO, dengue is considered a disease on the rise, with over 50 million cases worldwide each year.

Yellow fever
Yellow fever has caused hundreds of epidemics during its 400-year history. For instance, in 1793, the United States Government, along with President George Washington, were forced to flee Philadelphia (the capital of the country at the time) due to a Yellow Fever Epidemic. Currently only occurring in tropical areas of Africa and the Americas, the disease has no real treatment. Yellow fever occurs naturally in reservoir populations of monkeys in Africa and can then be transmitted to humans via mosquitoes when the mosquitoes first bite the infected monkeys and then humans. The advent of a vaccine 1937, has controlled the spread of Yellow fever, but every year about 200,000 cases occur with 30,000 deaths in 33 countries. 

West Nile virus (WNV)
West Nile virus (WNV) was first isolated in 1937 in Uganda, Africa. In 1999 the virus gained widespread attention when an outbreak occurred in New York City with 62 confirmed cases and 7 deaths. WNV then quickly spread to the rest of North America, the Caribbean, and Central America. As of 2014, there have been 36,437 cases of WNV reported to CDC. Of these, 15,774 have resulted in meningitis/encephalitis and 1538 were fatal.

Zika Virus
First discovered in macaque monkeys in 1947 in the Zika Forest region of Uganda, the Zika virus has now spread to 35 countries in the Americas, with 426 reported cases as of April 2016. The illness is usually quite mild so patients may not seek medical treatment (meaning many cases are not reported). Microcephaly, a congenital defect of newborn’s cranium and brain sizes can be caused by Zika infection as well as the autoimmune condition Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes damage to nerve cells resulting in muscle weakness and occasionally paralysis and death.

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