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Red Sea

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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…handy”)

Pirates and Private Navies

30 September 2010

Pirates and Private Navies

By Gwynne Dyer

The good news is that something is finally going to be done about the pirates who infest the Somali coast and raid far out into the Indian Ocean. A group of London-based insurance companies led by the Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT) is planning to create a private navy to protect commercial shipping passing through the Red Sea and the north-western Indian Ocean.

It’s about time. Even now, after the monsoon season has kept the pirates relatively quiet for months, sixteen ships and 354 sailors are being held captive in the pirate ports along the Somali coast. The average ransom paid to free those ships and their crews has risen to around $4 million, and it’s also taking longer: an average of almost four months between the hijacking of a ship and its release.

It’s the maritime insurance companies that pay the ransoms, and they are deeply unimpressed with the performance of the warships from various NATO and other nations that are patrolling the region. Even when the warships do catch some of the pirates, they often let them go again because they are operating under severe legal constraints.

So a fleet of twenty fast patrol boats crewed by well-armed mercenaries could be just what the doctor ordered. Unhampered by the legal considerations that paralyse the navies, they could just kill the pirates wherever they found them and dump their bodies into the sea.

True, this would deny them the privilege of a fair trial, but that’s not really necessary. The crime is being a pirate, not some specific act of piracy, so you don’t have to catch them in the act. When you find men hundreds of kilometres (miles) from shore in an open boat, equipped not with fishing gear but with automatic weapons and ladders to scale the sides of passing ships, there is really no room for argument. They are pirates.

The bad news is that this is not what the insurance companies are planning to do at all. Instead, this private navy would operate under the direct control of the international naval force that is already in the area, with “clear rules of engagement valid under international law.” What a pity. That’s exactly what is crippling the navies.

“We would have armed personnel with fast boats escorting ships, and make it very clear to any Somali vessels in the vicinity that they are entering a protected area,” JLT senior partner Sean Woollerson told The Independent newspaper in London. In other words, if you have insured your ship with JLT or its associates and paid the anti-piracy insurance premium (up to $450,000 per voyage for a supertanker), then you will be escorted by this private navy.

The pirates, not being complete fools, will just go and attack other ships instead. (JLT and its associates insure about 14 percent of the world’s commercial shipping fleet). There is still no actual plan to get rid of the pirates.

How can it have come to pass that we have a major pirate problem in the twenty-first century. They sorted that out in the early eighteenth century. Why has it got unsorted again?

Blame international law. When they were codifying the law of the sea back in the 1970s, the world had no pirate problem worth talking about. So they dropped the rule of “universal jurisdiction” that had been the key to suppressing piracy in the bad old days.

“Universal jurisdiction” meant that every navy could arrest suspected pirates of any nationality and try them under its own national laws, since pirates had been defined as “the enemies of all mankind.” A British warship could arrest Portuguese pirates off some Caribbean island belonging to the Netherlands, and they would be tried under British law. If they were captured in battle, they could be summarily executed.

That’s how piracy was wiped out in the first place. But when they were writing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s, there were no pirates any more, so they dropped the rule of “universal jurisdiction” in favour of a legal regime more attuned to modern notions of human rights and national sovereignty.

What has replaced those old rules, in practice, is a legal quagmire where you can never be sure who has legal jurisdiction. So the navies (which could easily suppress the piracy if they were free to act) refrain from using force, and are reluctant even to arrest people at sea who are quite obviously pirates.

To extinguish piracy again, we need a modernised version of the old rules. That requires prompt action to create a comprehensive international agreement that gets around the Law of the Sea — tricky, but that’s what diplomats get paid for. And if we got such an agreement, we wouldn’t even need private navies; the regular navies would be happy to do the job.

There is one other issue, of course. If we use serious force against the pirates, they will threaten to use force against their captives. Some of them might be killed. But since there will never be a time when there are no captives in the hands of the Somali pirates until and unless we crack down hard, that is a risk that we just have to take.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“It’s…constraints”; and “True…pirates”)