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January 21, 1998


Dilip D'Souza

Those simple little mosquitoes

Every evening as I sit in front of my computer and twiddle my little fingers instead of writing I can see the mosquitoes flying around me. When I lie down to sleep at night, I can hear them singing songs of obscure passion in my ear. If I'm not careful to plaster myself with Mylol -- nothing in the world works as well at repelling them, I assure you -- they ravage me, leaving itchy, lumpy welts all over my arms, neck, forehead and legs.

As I twiddle, I scratch angrily at the welts. But while they hurt like hell, I always also feel a mild, but definite, fright. For malaria is back rampant -- and mosquitoes bring malaria. Which is not something I want to contract. There are days when I don't feel like going through with the crore of Mylol-plastering. I say to myself well, I've not got malaria yet, I'll try riding my luck one more day. But I know that's really a foolish laziness. For if I can't be bothered to take the precautions I'm certain the disease will sock me eventually.

And, oddly enough, I also say to myself in this election season: politicians should be talking more -- doing more, preferably --- about mosquitoes. Less about whatever else drives their very mobile mouths. But they don't. Just why are so few bothered by things like malaria?

Before I continue musing in that vein, a little background on malaria.

An ancient scourge, malaria has always found a particularly congenial home in India. At mid-century, it was killing about a million Indians and about two million others around the world every year. Massive programmes in different parts of the globe more or less eradicated the disease. By the middle of the 1960s there was almost no malaria in India. The world thought it had the old killer licked.

It turns out that was just an illusion. The parasite that causes the disease is now widespread again, rapidly spreading further. In countries ranging from India to Thailand to the USA, millions of cases of malaria are being reported annually. In Africa, hundreds of millions are infected with it chronically. In Orissa, it is more or less endemic. I know doctors and social workers in that state who have got the disease over and over again; they speak of patients who suffer from it constantly. According to WHO, malaria today kills about 2.7 million people a year world wide. Nearly the same level of carnage as before it was eradicated.

Most troubling of all, the parasite is much more virulent than it used to be, in the sense that malaria is increasingly resistant to drugs that have worked well before in treating it. Used from the time of World War II, chloroquine is now ineffective in most parts of the world. Melfoquine is a more recent, more expensive invention, but is also becoming ineffective in many areas. One reason for this is that as soon as a drug is applied, evolution begins forcing the parasite to develop resistance to it, which it does very quickly indeed. Another reason is that the drugs are often used indiscriminately, meaning again that resistance evolves rapidly. This seems to have happened in Orissa.

Besides using drugs to attack the parasites, you can use insecticides to kill the beasts that carry them around: mosquitoes. There have been large-scale campaigns to do just this in the past. Through the '60s, in Brazil, Panama, Italy, across Africa and Asia and elsewhere, millions of homes were sprayed with DDT in an effort to kill mosquitoes.

There's a problem, of course. Like parasites with drugs, mosquitoes also become immune to insecticides. Again, wide and indiscriminate use of those chemicals encourage mosquitoes to evolve resistance to them rapidly. It now seems, according to a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly that 'spraying was most effective in areas that were only marginally malarious areas such as Egypt and southern Europe, where the parasite had only a tenuous hold. Meanwhile, for complex reasons, mosquitoes where malaria was solidly started showing resistance to the insecticides.'

Now just as we hope scientists will keep finding new drugs to kill the parasites, we hope that they will also keep finding new insecticides to kill the mosquitoes. So far, they have managed to do so. But both tasks get increasingly difficult and expensive.

It's not that malaria cannot be controlled. But applying powerful drugs and insecticides unthinkingly is a stupid way to do it. There are more efficient, far cheaper, measures we can take: preventive measures. That is, things like keeping the surroundings clean. Clearing garbage quickly. Draining standing water and swamps where mosquitoes like to breed. Introducing other species, like the fish Gambusia, that feed on mosquito larvae. Public health and education programmes so that people know how to fight the disease. And, with all those, the careful and selective use of chemicals and drugs.

As with most things, I'm sure you've noticed, malaria is best tackled by simple measures like these. And that's what brings me to politics. Perhaps I'm naive, but I often find myself wondering why politics is never about small, simple things, Instead, it seems to preoccupy itself with mighty, sometimes abtruse concepts.

Like most people would be, I am concerned when I see those mosquitoes buzzing around my bare skin. I hate being bitten by mosquitoes. The garbage piles that are not taken away, the clogged drains, the pools left to stagnate these concern me too because I know mosquitoes come from there. The possibility of contracting malaria scares me, because now malaria is once more one of the country's most deadly killers. Every evening, I risk being infected by it. These are some of my daily normal concerns. I imagine they and others like them are also the daily normal concerns of millions of other Indians.

So are they not the concerns of our leaders? Why do they form part of the pronouncements, or even the thoughts, of our decision makers, nor those who seek to supplant them? Why aren't we doing more to fight this disease?

It's like this. At election campaign time, more than at others, we hear a lot of rhetoric about a lot of issues. Words like secularism, Hindutva, corruption, Marxism, the integrity of our borders, patriotism -- these fly about much like the mosquitoes I'm slapping away as I write this. All of them, I know, have deep, profound meaning to a lot of people.

What I want to ask is: What do they actually translate into my life?

If I vote for a party that says it is committed to fighting corruption, can I expect less garbage on the roads? Whether it is Hindutva or secularism or both or none that sweeps the poll, will the drains in my city be cleaned and repaired so that water does not collect, flood and stagnate? If we elect politicians who trumpet to us how much they love India, will their love mean better public health measures? Education to go with those?

Whoever comes to power in a little over a month, will my chances of getting malaria decrease?

Ah, maybe you're saying. This guy lives in cuckoo land! Or mosquito land. Maybe you are right. Elections are not fought on these frivolities. Nobody campaigns on a control-malaria plank. For God's sake! But think about it. Why not? Malaria kills Indians, thousands of times more than Pakistan, say does. If putting Pakistan in its place can be a campaign issue, as it invariably seems to be, why not malaria?

If those terms I mentioned above that are always the grand brush strokes of politics -- patriotism secularism, etc -- do have something to do with my daily concerns --- malaria, for one -- what is that something? Why does the connection never get spelled out?

On the other hand, if they don't have much to do with malaria, why not?

Dilip D'Souza

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