Malaria kills around half a million people a year, most of them children under five. World Malaria Day, 25 April, is an annual reminder that the war against this killer disease continues. Since the 19th century there has been a three-pronged attack on malaria – controlling mosquito populations, preventing bites and treating with drugs. The simplest and most effective weapon in the battle is the mosquito net.
Intriguingly, mosquito nets have undergone something of a cultural transformation over the past 150 years. Although mosquitoes have been associated with disease for a long time, they were not seen as a specific threat to health until the end of the 19th century, when the cause and mode of transmission were determined. In many parts of the world, oppressive heat and humidity simply made the use of mosquito nets too impractical against something that was more a nuisance to be endured than a threat to life.
Protecting leisure and looks
The value of the mosquito net mirrors changing scientific and geopolitical developments. In 19th-century Europe, mosquito nets were often associated with wealth and leisure – a way for people (particularly women) to avoid the annoyance of itchy and unsightly bites when relaxing outdoors. John Singer Sargent’s paintings of his sister and friends in Majorca have an air of mystery, secluded in their own private worlds beneath the net: more modesty veil than protective cover.
Explorers and empires
Things started to change with increasing exploration and colonisation of the Tropics by Europeans. Many explorers complained bitterly about being attacked by mosquitoes and other insects. In Roosevelt’s book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, each new location he visits is accompanied by an account of the mosquitoes. In Chaco “the sand-flies crawled through the meshes in the mosquito-nets, and forbade them sleep; if in their sleep a knee touched the net the mosquitoes fell on it so that it looked as if riddled by birdshot and the nights were a torment…”.
Ronald Ross’s book The Prevention of Malaria, 1910, was a manual for colonial administrators to explain the ‘new mosquito theory’ of malaria transmission and offer practical guidance. “Malaria is the great enemy of the explorer, the missionary, the planter, the merchant, the farmer, the soldier, the administrator, the villager and the poor,” he declared – note the order of priority!
For Ross, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the life cycle of the malaria parasite, the fight against malaria was essential to the economic success of the Empire because malaria “makes people too sickly for hard work”, so the “prevention of malaria on a large scale is a great economical as well as a great humanitarian undertaking”.
His book offers a series of guidelines for the use of mosquito nets, including advice on how to enter: a net should be entered by lifting the edge as little as possible in order to “slip in with a twisting movement”.
By the early 20th century, patented mosquito nets for every possible use abounded. Some of these were advertised in another of Ross’s books.
A net for all occasions
Attitudes and behaviours change. Use of the mosquito net changed from a rather effeminate protection against the nuisance of mosquito bites to an essential part of the traveller’s kit used by heroic explorers and brave soldiers.
These photographs, probably for promotional purposes, of personal nets are an example of this shift in attitude. Perfect for the man of action in the Tropics, you can even incorporate your pipe under the veil! Pipes and smoking were thought to be an additional deterrent against mosquitoes.
Yet there was still mileage in pointing out the cosmetic benefits of nets. In this French World War I poster, a mosquito net not only ensures a good night’s sleep, it keeps you handsome enough to get the girl!
In combat, malaria was seen as an extra enemy, resulting in propaganda to alert the troops to the danger of mosquito bites and the need to use their nets. Malaria remained a problem for soldiers in World War II and if the delivery was more subtle, the message was the same: the mosquito net offers simple but effective protection:
The war continues
The driving force for research and action on malaria 100 years ago was economic self-interest and self-preservation in tropical climates; many of the best scientific minds of the time, such as Laveran, Koch, Mason, Grassi and Ross were engaged in the war against malaria. It has not featured as high on the agenda for scientific research now that chemical pesticides and pharmaceutical prophylactics have made it a distant memory in some parts of the world.
The decline of Western empires may have contributed to a tactical withdrawal, but the war on malaria isn’t over. As malaria returns to Greece and the consequences of global warming, we are reminded that malaria is not confined to the Tropics. The theme of World Malaria Day 2015 is “Invest in the future. Defeat malaria”. As Ross said a hundred years ago: “We know… several efficient methods of protection. It is our own fault then if we do not reduce [malaria] as much as possible.”
Author: Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library.