Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When mosquitoes bite, why does it have to itch

Visitors to Sri Lanka quickly learn that mosquitoes are a fact of life. This is especially true if one lives, lives, as i do, in an older Sri Lankan house and do not use air conditioning. I’m not quite sure why screens are not part of Sri Lankan architecture, however I can only recall encountering them on one occasion, many years ago, in a home that had been rented by the US Government for one of its staff members.

Sri Lankan mosquitoes come in several varieties. By far the most common one, is virtually invisible. In English, it is nicknamed a ‘noseeem.’ It specializes in biting around the ankles, leaving an irritating, painful itch. (As I was writing. a noseeem alighted briefly on my computer screen and zipped about for a few moments, perhaps to remind me of type’s ubiquitous presence). Noseeems are silent, but there are also varieties that emit the characteristic mosquito whine. This variety typically appears when one is sleeping or attempting to go to sleep.

Mosquitoes, must be taken seriously in Sri Lanka. In Colombo, malaria is no longer a problem but in other parts of the country to which I travel, it is, Dengue fever is another threat to health, with occasional cases being reported in Colombo, as well as rural areas. Some years ago, three of us living in a residence owned by the University of Colombo contracted what we believe was Dengue. One, the wife of a colleague, died in the middle of the night, while being taken to the hospital in a trishaw taxi.

Probably it is foolish (especially in light of my Dengue experience), but I don’t sleep under mosquito netting Colombo, though I do in ‘outstation’ areas. In my experience mosquitoes get through the netting anyhow, unless it is repellant-treated, and sometimes even then. I simply slather myself with citronella and hope for the best. Often I get through the night with no bites or only one or two, typically noseeeem bites on a finger or toe. But the itching from these is particularly irritating. The tiny bite is, initially difficult to locate (scratching does help) and the itch seems to permeate one’s entire hand, or foot.

One thinks of strange things when awakened in the middle of the night by the itch from a mosquito bite. The other night, I was wondering why humans and mosquitoes could not have a more symbiotic relationship. When mosquitoes bite, why does it have to itch? Buddhist doctrine reminds us that all sentient beings want happiness and do not want suffering. We should view all beings with compassion. But I find it difficult to generate compassionate feelings towards mosquitoes when my hand or foot is itching so badly that I cannot get back to sleep. Being compassionate to a carrier of Dengue or Malaria would be even more difficult, though I would not become aware of the culprit until after the fact.

The amount of blood that individual mosquitoes extract is miniscule. It is certainly not life threatening. I would gladly share with mosquitoes whose bites did not itch, if I could be assured that they would be malaria and dengue free. Since the goal of a species is survival, one wonders why God did not create, or evolutionary processes did not select, non disease transmitting mosquitoes with bites that do not itch.

PS. The night after writing this blog, I started using mosquito netting once again. In Kandy, from where I am posting this blog, there is no question. In the screenless room where I am working, listening to the sounds of Buddhist evening chants, the noseeems are nipping at my ankles, while their larger uncles whine and buzz, looking for a place to alight.

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