If I was to ask you what was the most dangerous animal in the world, and you were to think tigers, bears or sharks, you’d be wildly wrong, particularly with sharks. Despite Shark Week, despite Jaws, sharks are not statistically dangerous to humans – quite the reverse, humans kill millions, many, many millions of times more sharks that sharks kill humans.
I’m sure some smartass out there will be thinking that the most dangerous animal is man, but I’m thinking of other animals that kill humans.
And by a mile, the winner is the mosquito. To put it in context, sharks typically kill five or six humans per year, worldwide. Depending on your sources, mosquitoes kill somewhere between 700,000 and 2.7m people per year. Get that, mosquitoes kill at the very least 100,000 times more people than sharks. They are estimated to be responsible for about 17 per cent of all the disease on the planet. I can’t wait for Mosquito Week on the Discovery Channel.
They kill, of course, by spreading diseases when they bite, notably malaria, but also zika, dengue, and yellow fever, and many others. If you live in a western country and get one of these diseases, you will probably survive – probably – because you have access to good healthcare, but millions of people around the world don’t, and die.
But there’s hope.
A newly-developed vaccine to malaria is now being deployed in Kenya, and hopefully soon to other countries, and it is proving very effective. This is significant because around the world, a child dies of malaria once every two minutes.
A separate trial in the African country of Burkina Faso used a genetically modified fungus to attack the mosquito. It caused mosquito populations to collapse by 99% within weeks. Another GM technique was to introduce male mosquitoes into the population that, when they bred with the wild females, produced all male offspring, who retained the trait, causing the population to crash within one breeding season.
Wiping out mosquito-borne diseases would have an impact on the world similar to the invention of antibiotics… but as I say that, I can sense some uneasiness. Some people saying ‘it sounds like a good thing, but…’ The countries where mosquitoes kill millions are countries that have very high population growth and are very poor. Would a much lower childhood mortality rate, would that just increase populations unsustainably, causing even more poverty?
Actually, experience shows that the reverse is true. Lower childhood mortality doesn’t speed up population growth, it slows it down.
A good example is Iran. Infant mortality is measured in deaths per 1,000. The infant mortality rate in the United States is 5.8. In European countries it’s typically three or four. In Iran, the infant mortality rate is worse, it’s about 16 – so for every thousand Iranian babies born, 16 of them die in their first year of life. In the 1960s, Iran had an infant mortality rate of over 200.
Get that – for every five babies born, one would not make it to their first birthday. Then something happened. Iran got, maybe not rich, but at least prosperous, with oil, and there was the Islamic Revolution. Now, I’m no fan of the Iranian régime, but they brought in healthcare for everyone, and other social programs. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the infant mortality rate basically fell off a cliff.
So you’d expect a population explosion – right? Wrong. It never happened. From the mid 1980s, there was a sharp slowdown in the country’s population growth. People were having fewer babies.
They were reacting rationally. If you live in a country where one child in five dies before they say their first word, before they take their first steps, you also probably live in a country where the social security system isn’t that great, or most likely doesn’t exist at all. If you want to be looked after in your old age, you better have children.
And you better be lucky enough for them to survive. You could have five children and expect four to survive but who knows, you could be unlucky, and have all five die. For security, you need to spread your risk, make sure to have as many kids as you can.
But when you change to a situation where infant mortality is almost at western levels, it makes sense to just have a couple of kids, and invest your money and energy and love in them.
People in the third world aren’t stupid. They are reacting rationally to a terrible situation. If we need to slow population growth, and we probably do, the way to do that is to change the rationale. And the way to do that is to wipe out diseases like malaria.