On TV The scari­est sum­mer­time preda­tor

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Stephanie Merry Pro­vided by Dis­cov­ery

Most likely, a great white isn’t go­ing to kill you. Nei­ther is a se­rial killer, ter­ror­ist, griz­zly bear or a lot of other night­marein­duc­ing preda­tors.

What should be keep­ing you up at night is much smaller and a lot more com­mon. The new Dis­cov­ery doc­u­men­tary “Mosquito,” which airs Thurs­day, pro­vides plenty of rea­sons why we should be alarmed by the faintest buzzing sounds.

“Ev­ery­thing is in place for the per­fect storm of dis­ease,” nar­ra­tor Jeremy Ren­ner says dur­ing the film. “And yet al­most no one sees the dark clouds gath­er­ing.”

Are you scared yet? You should be.

The tiny blood-suck­ers we of­ten write off as pesky nui­sances dur­ing the sum­mer months are the dead­li­est an­i­mals in the world, killing roughly 750,000 peo­ple an­nu­ally.

The movie shows the hu­man side of the world­wide prob­lem, with the story of a Brazil­ian mother whose son has mi­cro­cephaly af­ter she con­tracted Zika while preg­nant; an African boy suf­fer­ing from malaria; a New York wo­man who’s per­ma­nently dis­abled af­ter a bout of West Nile; and a hus­band and wife in Florida who have quar­an­tined them­selves in their house, in fear of Zika, af­ter she be­came preg­nant.

Scarier, these aw­ful sto­ries may be­come more com­mon for a num­ber of rea­sons, one of which is glob­al­iza­tion.

As Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel group pres­i­dent Rich Ross put it dur­ing a re­cent phone con­ver­sa­tion, mos­qui­toes “have un­re­stricted air travel, and they don’t have to pay for lug­gage. They fly for free.”

The in­sects — most of which are not deadly — can be stow­aways on com­mer­cial flights or end up along­side ex­ports leav­ing Africa for the United States. They’re a byprod­uct of in­ter­na­tional trade and the uptick in per­sonal and pro­fes­sional air travel, and they don’t need much to sur­vive.

As the movie ex­plains, it took three cen­turies for dengue fever, yel­low fever and malaria to make their way from Africa to the Amer­i­cas and only an ad­di­tional 16 years for three other mosquito-borne ill­nesses — West Nile, Zika and Chikun­gunya — to tra­verse the globe.

“In rich coun­tries, there’s al­most a naivete about these things,” Bill Gates says dur­ing the film. “Peo­ple are sur­prised if you have an in­fec­tious dis­ease com­ing in to an area.”

Glob­ally, malaria is not a dis­ease of the past — it still kills hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple a year, mostly chil­dren. And new ill­nesses can spread quickly. Zika was only barely on the radar when Cana­dian di­rec­tor Su Ry­nard be­gan work­ing on the movie less than a year and a half ago.

“It was kind of a foot­note — no­body re­ally knew about it, and in the course of this last year while mak­ing the film, it went from some­thing peo­ple had never heard of to a cri­sis ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said Ry­nard, who also made “The Mes­sen­ger,” an­other doc­u­men­tary about the way hu­mans are al­ter­ing the nat­u­ral world. “That speaks to the speed of change and it speaks to the fu­ture. I think that’s not a one-off — this is how things are go­ing to go.”

Part of that speed is due to chang­ing tem­per­a­tures. Cli­mate change is about more than a po­lar bear on an ice floe, Ry­nard said. It’s also about dis­eases end­ing up in places they’ve never been be­fore. Deadly mos­qui­toes used to only live around the equa­tor, but as tem­per­a­tures rise around the globe, the in­sects are able to sur­vive far­ther north than they ever could.

“Hu­mans are driv­ing many species to ex­tinc­tion, but we’re mak­ing the world a bet­ter place for the mosquito, so mos­qui­toes are ac­tu­ally on the rise,” Ry­nard said while in town for the AFI Docs film fes­ti­val. “The way we live is re­ally cre­at­ing a prob­lem for our­selves.”

It’s an im­por­tant mo­ment to con­sider the prob­lem, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed bud­get will take money away from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Health, among other sci­en­tific agen­cies.

For­mer CDC di­rec­tor Tom Frieden has been crit­i­cal of the po­ten­tial cuts.

“If the pres­i­dent’s bud­get went through, it would en­dan­ger the lives of Amer­i­cans,” he said be­fore a re­cent screen­ing of “Mosquito,” in which he ap­pears. “We would ba­si­cally have to pull back from the front lines of ter­ri­ble or­gan­isms that we’re help­ing to keep in check.”

Frieden be­lieves that movies and pop cul­ture can help peo­ple com­pre­hend the mag­ni­tude of the dan­ger. For ex­am­ple, af­ter Ge­orge W. Bush read John Bar­rie’s his­tor­i­cal book “The Great In­fluenza,” about the deadly 1918 flu out­break, the pres­i­dent made dis­ease pre­pared­ness a pri­or­ity. And movies like “The Hot Zone” and “Con­ta­gion” give some sense of the ter­ri­fy­ing reper­cus­sions of a pan­demic, even if the lat­ter was “a lit­tle too op­ti­mistic about how quickly we’d get a vac­cine out there,” ac­cord­ing to Frieden.

“The real point is that pub­lic health is about pub­lic safety,” he said. Our coun­try’s se­cu­rity de­pends on more than tanks and ammo.

Frieden does un­der­stand why peo­ple might get lack­adaisi­cal about mos­qui­toes and their po­ten­tial to harm on a mas­sive scale. For one thing, they’re tiny and they’re ev­ery­where. It seems hope­less. It’s also dif­fi­cult to do any­thing about the prob­lem, which ne­ces­si­tates a mul­ti­pronged ap­proach that would en­tail work on a lo­cal level as well as the co­op­er­a­tion of coun­tries around the globe.

The key is to re­mem­ber that, even though we can barely see mos­qui­toes, the threat is still there.

“We live in this in­ter­con­nected world and a dis­ease any­where is a dis­ease ev­ery­where,” Ry­nard said. “There’s no bor­ders or walls we can put up to pro­tect our­selves from dis­ease.”

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