Bloodsuckers! The War on Mosquitoes

Sharks aren't even close. Neither are bears or crocodiles or scorpions or wolves.

In fact, the deadliest animal in the world is hardly the terrifying beast you might expect. Rather, it's that incredibly annoying, unwelcome dinner guest that can easily ruin an otherwise delightful summertime picnic.

I'm talking, of course, about mosquitoes.

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Those tiny ear-buzzing, blood-sucking buggers kill more people each year, by a long shot, than any other animal. On average, they're even deadlier to humans than humans are to each other (which is sadly, a pretty high threshold).

Just take a look at this infographic from Bill Gates' blog, which shows a selection of the world's deadliest creatures.  Among the pack, mosquitoes -- female mosquitoes, to be exact -- are the world's most dangerous assassins, responsible for more than an estimated 830,000 deaths in 2015 alone.

Of course, not all mosquitoes are created equal. Of the thousands of species buzzing around, some are much deadlier than others.

In the last couple of years, the mosquito species Aedes aegypti has garnered perhaps the most attention, at least in parts of the U.S. where it resides. It's the one that can transmit a generous selection of very nasty diseases including Zika, yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya.

The Aedes, though, is hardly the deadliest of the pack. That title goes to the Anopheles, a mosquito species endemic to many tropical regions of the world that can transmit a parasitic infection that causes malaria.

Malaria is responsible for more than half of all mosquito-related deaths, and remains one of the most pressing health issues in much of the developing world. There were an estimated 214 million cases in 2015, resulting in more than 430,000 deaths, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is still the biggest killer of children under five, according to the World Health Organization.

As grim as that sounds, the number of fatalities worldwide has actually fallen sharply in recent decades, dropping by more than 60 percent since 2000 (translating to nearly 7 million lives saved). And Gates, a major funder of malaria prevention efforts, believes it can be eradicated worldwide by mid-century.

Recent history supports this conviction.

100  years ago, malaria existed just about everywhere in the world. By mid-century, though, most industrialized nations, had wiped it out almost entirely, the result of well-funded eradication campaigns.

Today, malaria is generally considered a disease confined to poor, tropical regions of the world. But that's not an inevitability.

Although harder to eradicate in tropical climates that are particularly good for mosquito breeding, the disease is entirely preventable if attacked with the appropriate resources. In fact, it's a region's wealth rather than it's physical environment that plays the largest role in determining the fate of the disease.

World Malaria Report

Malaria, for instance, was long a serious public health issue in the United States, particularly in warm, swampy southern regions.

Today's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was founded during World War II as the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas. The agency was charged with preventing troops stationed abroad from contracting malaria. It also waged a concerted domestic effort to eradicate it in the South (which is why the CDC is based in Atlanta). In 1947, when the agency commenced its National Malaria Eradication Program in 13 southeastern states, there were roughly 15,000 reported cases of malaria in the U.S.

By the end of 1949, more than 4.6 million houses in the South had been sprayed with the highly toxic insecticide DDT. The agency also conducted large-scale drainage projects to remove mosquito breeding sites, provided training to local health agencies and even ran publicity campaigns against the mosquitoes, including the cartoon below. By 1951, operations ceased, and the disease was declared eradicated in the U.S.

In 1955, the World Health Organization began a major international effort, along the lines of the NMEP program, to target the Anopheles species and eradicate malaria worldwide. The campaign, however, was eventually abandoned.