An ominous feeling of being followed
These last few years, I have been having this lingering feeling of being followed. By multiple pairs of sinister, invisible eyes. Notorious eyes that follow me to every nook and corner of the city: to the parks on pleasant evenings, alleyways when I navigate them at night, while browsing at bookshops, to the cafes where I meet friends, my office – even in the middle of intense meetings – inside the cramped elevators, inside my car, and at home, even in the bedroom.
Persistent, always lurking in the shadows – behind the curtains, under the bed/chair/desk/sofa, in shady corners, behind shelves and cupboards – they are everywhere, enticed by the skin's odour and the carbon dioxide I exhale, gathering intel on when and how best to attack me.
Unfortunately, the stalking invariably always ends in wooing and attacks. Sometimes they woo humming ominous tunes. And when too desperate to woo, they simply attack; their mouthparts piercing the skin like needles, sucking up blood from the feet, hands, even the face, and leaving red, bumpy, and itchy patches in the wake of their assault.
Our very own Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, bearers of the life-threatening dengue virus, could easily have been cast in some Netflix crime thriller. I am calling them "our very own" because these mosquitoes have become a part of our daily lives, having lived with us for more than two decades now – and increasingly round-the-year, especially over the last few years.
If there is anyone closer to us than ourselves, it is these mosquitoes. In retrospect, having to talk about mosquitoes reminds me of these two lines from Elizabeth I of England: "Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it, Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done." She, of course, did not compose this poem in praise of mosquitoes, but rather after the failure of her marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou, Francis. But this sentiment brings me to a more alarming thought: are we becoming complacent regarding our love-hate living arrangement with mosquitoes?
Every year, the news outlets conduct ritual coverage on dengue-related deaths and hospitalisations, and the city corporations come up with their laundry list of activities. I am calling it a laundry list out of politeness, because these activities seem to have done very little to contain mosquitoes or mosquito-borne diseases over the last few years.
In the best case scenario, we get away with some irritating bites and hospitalisations. In the worst cases, we end up losing our loved ones to the deadly virus. Helpless, we stare as their eyes turn to stone, their cold bodies lying lifeless, at best on hospital beds. Otherwise, they perish without sufficient medical care, given the load on our healthcare system at the peak of the dengue season.
Not that there are no solutions to this pestering problem. Way back in a column in 2019 – what has now unfortunately become my yearly ritual piece on dengue – I recommended the introduction of Wolbachia – a natural bacteria present in almost 60 percent of insects, including certain breeds of mosquito – which can act as a game-changer in containing the mass-scale spread of dengue. This bacteria, when introduced to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, can restrict their ability to transmit the dengue virus to humans. Wolbachia is safe for humans, animals, and the environment overall, and has been found to be effective in reducing cases of dengue fever by up to 77 percent, in comparison to areas where Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were not released.
Authorities have been pondering this for some time now. But have they taken any concrete steps in conducting even a pilot study in Bangladesh? The only statement – that can be considered a commitment – has come from Directorate General of Health Services, which at a Monsoon Aedes Survey 2022 workshop at the peak of the dengue season last year (September 2022, to be specific) said that it will introduce the Wolbachia bacteria to control dengue spread.
So, for now, we are left with the laundry list of the two city corporations to satisfy our concerns, and pretend like the mosquitoes will go away on their own, or that we and our loved ones are immune to the virus they are carrying.
To be on the safe side, it would be a good idea to keep our surroundings clean, take responsibility of the waste we are generating, and properly manage the accumulation of water – especially rainwater or water from other sources accumulating in pots, under big leaves, flower vases, water storage vessels, water tanks, terrace corners, curing tanks, and rubber tires.
This year, the dengue outbreak has been reported to have the capacity to break all previous records in its pervasiveness and prevalence, based on how things have panned out so far. And experts fear that the measures taken by the capital's city corporations remain faulty and lacking in ability to contain such a spread. A pre-monsoon survey conducted by the DGHS, between January 26 and February 4, found Aedes larvae in 4.03 percent of households in Dhaka, majority of these in under-construction and multi-storied buildings.
Bangladesh reported the highest number of dengue-related deaths in 2022 with 281 fatalities, since the virus reappeared in 2000. While the outbreak so far this year has been relatively contained, with the total caseload standing at 2,376 and the death toll being 16, as of June 4, we must bear in mind that the peak monsoon season between June to October has just begun, and that last year, due to a late arrival of monsoon it was in the September-October period that dengue cases and fatalities had escalated.
While urging authorities to take immediate measures to introduce Wolbachia and take steps to gear up activities to prevent a crisis like last year's, we, as responsible citizens, must come to terms with the fact that the onus is on us to keep our own surroundings clean. As I write this, I can hear the unpleasant humming of at least a couple of mosquitoes, so I will leave it here and grab some mosquito-repellent lotion, which I am yet to get used to despite all these years of being forced to use it.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb