November 9, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires) Part 3

Mosquitoes have had a profound effect on history.  One of the most significant examples in modern times is the role that mosquitoes played in the building of the Panama Canal, or rather, in stopping the building of the Panama Canal. Mosquitoes transmit malaria and yellow fever.  They suck the blood of an infected person then pass the disease along when they bite their next victim.

The French were the first to attempt a canal across the Panama isthmus. They began in 1880 but were forced to give it up by 1889.  There were lots of reasons why the French failed, but one of the major contributing factors was the horrendous death toll due to malaria and yellow fever.  You see, in those days the role that mosquitoes played in transmitting theses diseases was unknown.  It was believed that these diseases were caused by poor hygiene, exposure to a victim or noxious air. During the French era, 12,000 workers died of malaria and yellow fever during construction of the Panama Railway and 22,000 during the effort to build the canal. The French tried to stop the diseases, but because the cause was uncertain, their efforts were unsuccessful.

In 1897, Britain's Ronald Ross proved that mosquitoes transmitted malaria and yellow fever.  The United States bought the rights to build the canal in 1889.  By 1904 sanitation methods were in place that dramatically reduced the deaths due to these diseases.  These methods included:  drainage of standing water where mosquitoes bred, brush and grass cutting, oiling water that could not be drained, larvicides, fumigation, prophylactic quinine, installation of screens and the trapping and killing of adult insects.  By 1906 yellow fever was all but eliminated and malaria was markedly reduced thus allowing one of the construction miracles of the twentieth century to come to completion.

References and additional reading:

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