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Malaria and Chickens

I had malaria once, and it was extremely unpleasant. I had been working in Yemen, but I actually contracted it when I was flying home on a Dutch airline that must remain nameless. The flight made a stop in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and the plane was parked out on the runway while waiting to pick up passengers – right on the edge of a mangrove swamp on the Red Sea coast .

The pilot turned the engines off to save fuel, and then opened the door to give us fresh air. It was night-time, and so a million mosquitoes swarmed into the plane. In five minutes everybody had been bitten multiple times. The passengers then revolted and the pilot shut the door and turned the air con back on, but it was too late.

I fell ill and collapsed a couple of weeks later, when I was at my wife’s family’s house in a small village in southern France, but I was lucky. My wife, who grew up in Africa, thought it was malaria, and the village doctor (who had served with the French army in Africa) confirmed it, so there and then he gave me a massive dose of antimalarial drugs.

By the time they got me to the hospital in Bayonne, they couldn’t even find any of the Plasmodium parasites in my bloodstream. They kept me in hospital for a couple of days anyway, but it wasn’t that bad, because in French hospitals they give you wine with your meals.

Small crisis, not many hurt. But the point of the story is that none of this would have happened to me (and presumably to some of the other passengers too) if only there had been chickens on the plane.

Statistics can sometimes lead to significant medical breakthroughs. In this case a team of Ethopian and Swedish scientists did a statistical study in three villages in western Ethiopia about the feeding habits of nocturnal, malaria-carrying Anopheles arabiensis mosquitoes. The results were instructive.

Outdoors, the mosquitoes preferred to feed on cattle (63 percent of bites), with human beings coming next (20 percent), and goats and sheep bringing up the rear (5 percent and 2.6 percent). Indoors, people provided 69 percent of the mosquitoes’ meals, compared to cattle at 18 percent and sheep and goats coming last again. (In this part of Ethiopia, people sometimes bring their animals indoors at night.)

There were also plenty of chickens around, both indoors and out. But in one outdoor sample, only one female mosquito out of 1,200 had chicken blood in her. In the indoor sample, none did. MOSQUITOES DON’T BITE CHICKENS.

Why not? Maybe evolution has taught mosquitoes to avoid chickens because chickens eat mosquitoes. But how do mosquitoes actually spot a chicken? Certainly not by sight: tiny compound eyes are good for spotting movement, but they do not give you much detail or any distance vision at all. So maybe by smell? That would be handy.

We can’t disguise ourselves as chickens, but we could try smelling like them. Or at least have something that smells chickeny nearby. In one experiment, the scientists even hung cages with live chickens in them over people’s beds at night, and lo! They had very few mosquito bites – fewer even than people sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets.

Admittedly, this approach is a bit impractical for general use. Something more compact and less noisy would be preferable. So the scientists tried putting chicken feathers near people’s beds, and it still worked. Then they tried distilled essence of chicken odour (isobutyl butyrate, naphthalene, hexadecane and trans-limonene, if you must know), and that worked too.

Almost half the world’s population (3.2 billion people) lives in areas where malaria-bearing mosquitoes are present. About one in fifteen of those people actually comes down with malaria each year, and almost half a million of them die of it. Many tens of millions more spend a long, agonising time being very sick indeed.

Anything that cuts into those numbers would be most welcome, and prevention is much better than cure. CHEAP prevention is even better, and compared to insecticide-treated bed nets and various experimental vaccines, just sprinkling some “essence de poulet” (chicken fragrance) around before going to bed has got to be cheaper.

Essence de poulet probably won’t be on the market for a while yet, but hats off to Professor Habte Tekie of the University of Addis Ababa and Professor Rickard Ignell of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who led the Ethiopian-Swedish team that did the study. (Their full report is available online in the 21 July issue of Malaria Journal)

Meanwhile, if you want to bring a chicken along on our next camping trip, it’s fine with me. But don’t get the supermarket kind. They don’t work as well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…handy”)

Lifespan: Three Months a Year

Everybody knows where the population explosion came from. Two centuries ago birth rates and death rates were high everywhere, and population growth was very slow. Then clean water, good food and antibiotics radically cut the death rate—and the human population of this planet increased 300 percent in the past 90 years.

Eventually, as people moved into the cities and big families were no longer an advantage, the birth rate dropped too. The world’s population is still growing, but it will only increase by 50 percent in the next 90 years. So far, so obvious. But what’s happening to the human lifespan is equally dramatic.

Here’s the key statistic: the average human lifespan in a developed country has been increasing at three months per year ever since the year 1840.

Everybody assumes that lifespan grew much faster in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is growing much slower now. But no. It has plodded along at the same rate, adding about three months to people’s life spans every year, for the past 175 years. And yes, that does mean that a baby born four years from now can expect to live, on average, a whole year longer than a baby born this year.

There have always been some people who lived to 70 or 80, but the average age at death in 1840 was only 40 years. By the year 2000 it was 80 years. That’s 40 more years of life per person in 160 years.

And lifespan is still increasing at the same rate. In Britain, for example, the average lifespan has increased by 11 more years in the past 44 years. Three months per year, just like in the 19th century.

This is why actuaries predict that babies born in the year 2000 will have an average lifespan of 100 years. Give those babies the 80 years of life that people who died in 2000 enjoyed, then give them an extra three months for every one of those 80 years—and they will have 20 years more years to live. That is, an average of 100 years.

This sounds so outlandish that you instinctively feel there must be something wrong with it, and maybe there is. The fact that it has gone on like this for 175 years doesn’t necessarily mean that it will go on forever. But it’s not stopping or even slowing, so the smart money says that it will continue for quite a while yet

What about the developing world? Most of it has been playing catch-up, and by now the gap isn’t very big any more. In China the average lifespan was only 42 years as recently as 1950—but then it began increasing by six months per year, so that the average Chinese citizen can now expect to live to 75. Once you hit an average lifespan of 75 years, however, the pace slows down to three months per year, the same as in the developed countries.

India is a little behind China: average lifespan was still 42 years in 1960, and is now 68, so it’s still going up at six months per year. But we may expect to see it fall to the normal three months per years in about 2030, after the average Indian lifespan reaches 75.

All the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are in the same zone. The sole exception is Africa: where 35 countries have average life spans of 63 years or lower. But even most African countries are seeing a slow growth in average lifespan.

So do we end up with a huge population of people so old they can barely hold their heads up, let alone eat solid food? Probably not.

Three hundred years ago Jonathan Swift wrote about people like that in his satire Gulliver’s Travels. Struldbrugs, he called them: people who could not die, but went on ageing until they were so decrepit and disabled that death would have been a mercy.

They were declared legally dead when they reached eighty, as otherwise their longevity would mean they ended up owning everything. But they weren’t really dead; now it was the public that had to support them for the rest of their interminable lives.

In real life, crippling diseases and disabilities are still mainly a phenomenon of the last decade of life, and as the lifespan lengthens that final decade also moves.

Demographers now talk about the “young old”, who are in their 70s and 80s and still in reasonably good shape—and the “old old”, in their 90s and 100s, who are mostly frail and in need of care. So the time is probably coming when people must work until into their 80s, because the over-65s will amount to a third of the population. No society can afford to support so many.

But by then people won’t be decrepit in their 80s. And the only alternative is dying younger.

The African Union and the ICC

14 October 2013

The African Union and the ICC

By Gwynne Dyer

Surprise of the week: the club of African presidents (aka the African Union) has held a special meeting and declared that African presidents should be immune from prosecution for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes while they are in office. They are taking this step, they say, because the International Criminal Court is unfairly targeting Africans: all eight cases currently under investigation are about crimes committed in African countries.

“We would love nothing more than to have an international forum for justice and accountability, but what choice do we have when we get only bias and race-hunting at the ICC?” said President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (who by a strange coincidence is currently under indictment by the ICC). “The ICC…stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.”

The AU is not demanding perpetual immunity for its presidents. It only wants to reject the evil meddling of Western imperialists, and to keep African heads of state free from prosecution while they are still in office. What could be more reasonable than that?

So Uganda’s Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Sekou Toure of Guinea and other African mass murderers who actually died in office would have been liable for prosecution as soon as they retired, if they ever had retired and if the ICC had existed at that time. Their victims would have had justice at the last, if only posthumously.

If the AU gets its way now, the victims of current African leaders who commit crimes against humanity will only have to wait until they retire to see justice done. True, some African leaders stay in power for a long time – e.g. Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (32 years), Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (32 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (31 years), and Paul Biya of Cameroon (29 years) – but Africans are patient people.

Except that they may not be that patient any more. Twenty years ago the accusation that the ICC is just an instrument of imperialist oppression and Western racism would still have played well in Africa, but the audience has got a lot more sophisticated. The AU’s modest proposal has been greeted with an outcry all over the continent, from Africans who know that their leaders can be just as cynical and self-serving as leaders anywhere else.

The most eloquent protest came from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 82-year-old hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. “Those leaders seeking to skirt the (ICC) are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence,” he said. “They simply vilify the institution as racist and unjust, as Hermann Goering and his fellow Nazi defendants vilified the Nuremberg tribunals following World War II.”

So is the ICC really a racist organisation that unfairly targets African states? The fact that all eight cases currently being prosecuted involve African countries certainly sounds suspicious. So does the fact that three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which has the right to refer cases to the ICC, have not accepted the court’s jurisdiction themselves. But things are more complicated than they seem.

One hundred and twenty-two countries have already ratified the Treaty of Rome that created the ICC in 1998, including two-thirds of the countries in Africa and all the countries in Latin America except Cuba and Nicaragua. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC is an African (Fatou Bensouda of Gambia), as are five of its eighteen judges.

The anomaly of Security Council members that have not ratified the treaty themselves (China, Russia and the United States) voting to initiate prosecutions before the ICC is definitely a problem. But only two of the eight current cases, in Libya and Sudan, were started by a vote of the Security Council, where Western influence is relatively large.

Four of the eight cases now before the Court (Uganda, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic) were referred to the International Criminal Court by the African countries themselves. Two were begun by the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor (Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire). And only two of the seven new cases now under consideration (Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Colombia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria) are in African countries.

This is not a conspiracy against Africa, nor is the AU defending African rights. It is an exclusive club of African presidents that is attempting to get its own members, the leaders of Sudan and Kenya,off the hook, and to protect the rest of the membership from any future legal proceedings.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, it would be a “badge of shame” for Africa if they get away with it, but they may not. They can easily dismiss the opinions of the “international community” (whatever that is), but they may find it harder to ignore the indignation they are arousing among their own citizens.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“So…posthumously”; and “The anomaly…large”)


Rape is an African Problem

15 September 2013

Rape is an African Problem

By Gwynne Dyer

Last May, with considerable trepidation, I wrote an article about what seemed to be extraordinarily high rates of rape in Africa. The original data came from a study by South Africa’s Medical Research Council in 2009 which found that more than a quarter of South African men – 27.6 percent – admitted that they had committed rape. Almost half of those men had raped two or three women or girls. One in thirteen had raped at least ten victims.

Over the next couple of years, I ran across a couple of other less detailed studies suggesting that the problem was not just South African. A report from the eastern Congo in 2012 said that over a third of the men interviewed – 34 percent – had committed rape, and an older report from Tanzania found that 20 percent of the women interviewed said they had been raped (although only one-tenth as many rapes were reported to the police).

So I wrote a piece called “An African Iceberg” in which I said that this was a phenomenon that needed urgent investigation continent-wide – but it did occur to me to wonder if there were similar icebergs in other developing countries. The only figures that were available for developing countries elsewhere were official ones, and those normally only record the number of women who tell the police they have been raped. Most don’t.

Women are reluctant to report rape in any society, and in traditional societies much more so. The South African study was the only one that had adopted the strategy of asking men directly. Maybe if the same sort of study were done in other continents, I thought, it would return equally horrifying figures. And lo! Somebody else had the same thought, and the resources to do something about it.

The new report, conducted under the auspices of four United Nations agencies cooperating as “Partners for Prevention”, was published last week in the online version of “The Lancet Global Health”, a respected British medical journal. The study was undertaken quite specifically to learn if the South African figures were duplicated in developing countries outside Africa. .

The researchers chose six countries in the Asia-Pacific region: China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. As in the South African study, the word “rape” was not used in the questionnaire. The 10,178 men interviewed were asked if they had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex” or “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.”

There were further questions about forcing a wife or girlfriend to have sex (which is also rape), about gang rape, and about raping males, but for simplicity’s sake let us stick with the questions about what the researchers called “single perpetrator rape” of a woman who was neither wife nor girlfriend. The answers varied from country to country, but the overall picture was clear. Africa (or at least South Africa) is all alone out there.

In most of the Asian countries involved in the study, between 2 and 4 percent of the men interviewed said that they had raped a “non-partner” woman. That falls into the same range that prevails, one suspects, in most developed countries (although their reported cases of rape are much lower).

There were some local peculiarities, like the fact that in rural Bangladesh men are more likely to get raped than women. China came in surprisingly high, with 6 percent of the men interviewed admitting to rape, but that may be related to the growing surplus of males in a society where the gender ratio has become very skewed: there are 99 large Chinese cities where more than125 boys are born for every 100 girls.

But Papua New Guinea was right up there with South Africa: 26.6 percent of the men interviewed had committed “single perpetrator rape” of a non-partner woman. And the other numbers were just as startling: 14 percent of PNG men had participated in a gang rape, and 7.7 percent had raped a man or boy. So Asia as a whole is quite different from Africa on this count – but PNG is practically identical.

What is so special about Papua New Guinea? It is a country with an extravagantly large number of different tribes and languages. It is an extremely violent country, where most people live in extreme poverty. It is a place where the law is enforced only sporadically, and often corruptly. And it is a place where traditional tribal values, patriarchal to the core, reign virtually unchallenged among a large part of the population. Remind you of anywhere?

Well, you already suspected that this was at the root of it, didn’t you? You just didn’t want to say so, for fear of being accused of being racist, anti-African or something of that sort.

But it does need to be said, loudly and repeatedly. Women and girls are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence in Africa than almost anywhere else, and the only way to change that is to change the behaviour of African men. By persuasion if possible, but also by enforcing the law.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Over…police”; and “There…girls”)