The simple mosquito, while small in stature, has been man’s most persistent and deadly foe. Millions die from malaria, yellow fever, West Nile virus and other mosquito-transferred pathogens every year. Why do mosquitoes bite? Unlike ticks and other insects that are exclusive blood feeders, mosquitoes rely on sugar for energy, obtaining it from plant nectar and juices. Female mosquitoes bite because they need blood to extract all of the proteins and nutrients to produce fertile eggs. Although non-egg producing male mosquitoes don’t bite, the female mosquito population is more than enough to cause extensive human pain and suffering.
Human malaria, the deadliest of all the diseases passed by infected mosquitoes, kills more than 3 million people annually. Today, most malaria infections are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, incidents of malaria in New Jersey have been eliminated. This was no accident. Rather, we can thank our state’s vigorous response to mosquito control in the early 1900s.
Today’s mosquito control infrastructure within our state can be attributed to the dedicated work of one man, James B. Smith. Smith, New Jersey’s second state entomologist, is considered the father of mosquito control. He convinced the state legislature that mosquitoes needed to be dealt with at a state level, demonstrating that one county could be infiltrated with mosquitoes bred in a marsh or swamp of another county. As a result of Smith’s persistent lobbying, New Jersey established a coordinated effort for mosquito control through county mosquito control commissions with oversight from the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. These so-called Smith laws, adopted in 1912, are still on the books today.
Smith died shortly before the bill was signed into law. Dr. T.J. Headlee implemented Smith’s vision with great determination and thereafter Dr. Bailey B. Pepper followed Headlee’s considerable efforts. Because of the early leadership and foresight of these three dynamic entomologists, New Jersey has enjoyed one of the most successful mosquito control programs in the country for close to a century. Our seashore recreational industry owes its existence to these mosquito control initiatives.
In addition to malaria, mosquitoes are also the source for yellow fever and other viruses. Yellow fever has a mortality rate exceeding 50 percent. Some historians believe that Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana Territory was due in part to yellow fever killing 40,000 French troops. Encephalitis viruses transmitted by mosquitoes include Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus. The 1959 outbreak of EEE in New Jersey resulted in 22 deaths. In response to this outbreak, the state legislature funded the Headlee Research Laboratories at Rutgers which today houses the Center for Vector Biology. The center is currently engaged in research aimed at suppressing the Asian Tiger Mosquitoes in urban areas. The particular mosquito transmits Japanese B encephalitis as well as Dengue Fever, also known as “Breakbone Fever,” because the virus causes extreme aching of joints, even in the immovable joints between the plates in the skull.