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Sarnia native’s deep dive into world of mosquitoes is all the buzz

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Cathy Dobson

Surprisingly, Tim Winegard doesn’t wear bug spray.

The university professor and historian from Sarnia has just published The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, a New York Times bestseller three weeks running.

“The reception is surreal,” Winegard told The Journal.

“It’s been crazy and overwhelming. I’ve had 250 interviews since it was released Aug. 6,” he said from his home in Grand Junction, Colorado where he lives with his wife and son.

Winegard, 42, has written four history books for the university press, but this was his first for a mass audience.

While doing research for the earlier books he’d frequently find intriguing references to the mosquito and the bothersome bug’s impact on human history, he said.

Professor, author and Sarnia native Timothy Winegard.
Submitted Photo

The diseases it carries, including malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, Zika, dengue, and elephantiasis, make the mosquito the planet’s most deadly human predator.

Winegard reports that an astonishing 50% of the 108 billion humans who have lived throughout history have died from diseases spread by female mosquitos, which require blood to reproduce.

Yet he expresses astonishing compassion for his subject.

“She’s only trying to do what comes naturally and make sure her species procreates,” he said. It’s the 15 pathogens spread by mosquitos that are the concern.

While looking for a topic for his first mainstream publication he turned to his father – Bluewater Health ER Dr. Charles Winegard – for inspiration.

“We were talking about my next book and he brought up malaria, then we thought about the mosquito’s role with that,” he said.

“Later, we went grocery shopping together and saw this big billboard for (insect repellent). It advertised that it might repel mosquitos that cause dengue fever. That’s when all the puzzle pieces fell into place. I find it fascinating how this tiny creature has shaped human history.”

Winegard’s bestseller draws heavily on his expertise in military history.

His great grandfather William contracted malaria, typhoid and Spanish influenza at age 18 with the Canadian Navy off the coast of Africa. He survived and met his future wife on the ship back to Canada.

Tim Winegard grew up in Sarnia and graduated from St. Patrick’s high school before earning degrees in history and political science. He has a PhD from Oxford and was an officer in the Canadian and British forces for nine years. He now teaches at Colorado Mesa University.

“I remain a very proud Canadian and get home to Bright’s Grove quite often,” he said.

Just ahead of the book’s release, Winegard wrote a column for the Globe and Mail in which he outlined the mosquito’s threat to Canadians.

Canada has had a 10% increase in mosquito-borne disease over the past 20 years, he said. West Nile is the single biggest concern, but that could change as the planet warms and mosquitoes survive further north.

The book’s final chapter is dedicated to fighting the spread of mosquito-borne disease, which kill one to two million people worldwide annually. He credits the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for being at the forefront and making inroads at controlling malaria.

Winegard admits his personal relationship with mosquitoes is complicated.  “I hate them for causing so much death and misery but I also respect them because they are an evolutionary marvel,” he said.

Perhaps some of that respect comes easily because mosquitoes aren’t naturally attracted to people with his blood type. They favour Type 0, he said.

About 85% of what attracts mosquitoes, including chemical and bacterial levels on your skin, is predetermined by genetics.

Winegard is one of the lucky ones.

“I never bother with bug spray and I don’t get bitten at all,” he said.  “But you should see how much they like my sister.”

 


 

How a mosquito bites you

“While groundhog Wiarton Willie may predict the onset of spring, the arrival of summer is signalled by the flight of the famished female mosquito. Her buzz has been one of the most universally recognizable and aggravating sounds on Earth for more than 100 million years.

Although you heard her droning arrival, she gently lands on your ankle undetected. She conducts a tender, probing, reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. She steadies her crosshairs and zeroes in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath.

With this straw she starts to suck your blood, immediately excreting its water while condensing its protein content. All the while, a sixth needle is pumping in saliva that contains an anticoagulant, preventing your blood from clotting at the puncture site. This shortens her feeding time, lessening the likelihood that you feel her penetration and splat her across your ankle.

The anticoagulant causes an allergic reaction, leaving an itchy bump as her parting gift. With this single bite she can also transmit one of several diseases. For the mosquito, she simply needs your blood to grow and mature her eggs.

Please don’t feel singled out. She bites everyone. This is just the nature of the beast.”

– Excerpt from a Globe and Mail article by Timothy C. Winegard, author of The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

 

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