The things we do for science.
Researchers who study mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects sometimes use themselves as skeeter chow. In some cases, it’s because certain species of mosquitoes seem to prefer human blood to animal blood. In others, though, it’s a cheap, convenient alternative to keeping animals around for the insects to feed on or buying blood. And as it turns out, once you’ve been bitten a certain number of times you develop a tolerance to mosquito saliva.
Entomologist Steve Schutz, seen above paging through a magazine while the bloodsuckers go to work on his arm, feeds his mosquito colony once a week. He has welts for about an hour, but after that the bites fade, occasionally leaving a few red spots. That’s good, because at 300 bites a week, he averages about 15,000 a year. That’s dedication.
In case you haven’t heard, malaria is kind of a big deal. It’s the third-deadliest infectious disease in the world, kills about a million people a year, and has a frustratingly ingenious way of becoming resistant to anti-malarial treatments. Now scientists are trying out a rather counter-intuitive method of preventing malaria cases: Using malaria-infected mosquitoes to boost immunity.
It’s a crazy idea that just might work. That’s because people can become immune to malaria if they contract it multiple times, and because the drug chloroquine kills malaria parasites when they’re in the bloodstream.
Scientists tried to take advantage of these two factors, by using chloroquine to protect people while gradually exposing them to malaria parasites and letting immunity develop.
They assigned 10 volunteers to a “vaccine” group and five others to a comparison group. All were given chloroquine for three months, and exposed once a month to about a dozen mosquitoes — malaria-infected ones in the vaccine group and non-infected mosquitoes in the comparison group.
That was to allow the “vaccine” effect to develop.
The next task, of course, was to see if the vaccine actually worked. When the study’s subjects stopped taking chloroquine and were bitten by mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite, subjects in the control group developed malaria, while none in the vaccine group did.
Malaria’s increasing resistance to the strongest drugs may make a vaccine our only hope for fighting the parasite. So if a few itchy mosquito bites could put an end to this pervasive disease, we’ll gladly leave our bug spray at home.
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Image: flickr / James Jordan
How easy would it be for terrorists to pack a mosquito in their luggage? At present, there’s no airport security device that would stop them. And at least one bug expert—Jeffrey Lockwood, a professor of entomology at Wyoming University—thinks there is reason to worry.
Lockwood told DISCOVER that insects can be used to cause disease, impact agriculture, and inflict pain (fire ants being a prime example). He also notes that yellow fever can potentially spread in the U.S. just like West Nile Virus did after an infected individual traveled to New York and was bitten.
Bugs have been used in warfare before. In World War II, Lockwood says, the Japanese army injected fleas with the bubonic plague and coated flies in cholera, killing more than 400,000 Chinese.