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Today's Tools For Combating Zika Mosquitoes Hark Back To 1945

The title card from a 1945 government film about the campaign to control <em>Aedes aegypti</em> mosquitoes and prevent dengue and yellow fever.
CDC
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The title card from a 1945 government film about the campaign to control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and prevent dengue and yellow fever.

"It's up to you," said a 1945 public service announced aimed at Americans. Find "one of man's worst enemies" and "destroy their foxholes."

The video came from the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And it was talking about a particular species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti — the very same mosquito in the news now. Back then, public health officials were mostly worried about dengue and yellow fevers.

The video opens with the cartoon image of a man bludgeoning a giant mosquito, its tongue hanging out and white-and-black striped legs akimbo. Pamphlets showed people how to destroy breeding sites. Boy Scouts, "prepared and anxious to undertake their duties," went from house to house dumping out wagons, telling housewives to change the water in vases every few days, and turning empty cans and bottles upside down. They also emptied tires and punctured cans in trash piles, so that they couldn't refill with water.

Activities like that were part of an international anti-mosquito campaign that started in the early 1900s and actually worked. Cases of yellow fever dropped in urban areas, and a 1961 map proclaimed that much of the Americas — including Brazil and Colombia — had made a big dent in the mosquito populations. But shortly after, the mosquitoes made a comeback.

And here we are, 70 years later, still trying to reduce populations of the same mosquito. The message is much the same — dump out containers of standing water, cover cisterns and rain barrels, and try to keep from being bitten. It's just that now there are probably fewer Boy Scouts involved.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
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