A mosquito is a vampire. It sucks your blood and leaves a mark. It “lives on human gore,” as the humorist George Fitch put it in his early-20th century column Vest Pocket Essays. But it’s never more vampiric than when it spreads a virus. Like a vampire, its bite hijacks your body. The bite leaves behind a poison that weakens you, that changes you.
Mosquitoes don’t seem to inspire fear equal to their danger. They are the deadliest animals on the planet, more dangerous to humans even than humans themselves. But in areas like the U.S., where mosquito-borne viruses are less of a threat, the bugs are seen as more of an annoyance than the tiny vampires they really are, something to shoo away when it buzzes in your ear or lands on your arm. They aren’t objects of fear the way snakes or sharks are, but mosquitoes kill nearly 15 times more people than snakes, and 72,000 times more people than sharks.
Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, says that a specific fear of mosquitoes is rare. “When you’re looking at phobias in the critter world it’s spiders and sometimes cockroaches. Very rarely do you see mosquitoes coming forward,” she says. Even in areas of Africa, Asia, and South America where malaria or other mosquito-borne diseases are a constant threat, Kerr doubts that fear would center on the mosquito itself.
People in these areas are probably more vigilant and more aware of mosquitoes than, say, Americans are, but “they’re likely not walking around with fear every day,” Kerr says. “Probably we can’t assume that they’re more afraid, because they encounter it all the time. So they have to figure out a way to manage it. We see anxieties really increase in areas where people don’t have any experience with a threat.”
An ever-present danger tends to fade into the background, unless you have a reason to notice it. Zika has made people notice. A Republican representative from Florida brought a jar of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes onto the floor of the House earlier this month. “This is the reason for the fear,” David Jolly said, brandishing the jar at a Congress that has repeatedly failed to fund the fight against Zika. “Can you imagine, colleagues, the fear and anxiety in this chamber if these mosquitoes were outside this jar and not inside this jar?... This is the fear of Floridians, right here.”
Zika not only reveals the vampires living among us, but it has made them into the villains of a full-fledged horror story. I’ve been reporting on Zika all year and friends often reach out to me for reassurance. “Am I going to get Zika?” they ask, and I say “No, no, of course not,” like I know anything, like I’m the boss of Zika. “Well, probably not,” I usually amend. “And if you do, you probably won’t know it.”
Of course, that’s not very reassuring. Not-knowing is the scariest thing about the disease. If you get it, will you have symptoms? (Eighty percent of the time, you won’t.) Could you have it, and spread it, and hurt someone else without even knowing? If a pregnant woman gets it, will her child be okay? Is this just a bug bite, or is it a catastrophe?