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Houston: A Hotbed of Disease Before Mosquito Control

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(HOUSTON) — Houstonians today have moderate concerns about mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, but we’ve got it easy compared to early residents of the Bayou City.

Yellow fever was a monstrous killer in the early days of Houston.

“In Houston and Galveston, almost every summer, there were outbreaks of yellow fever,” Dr. Herbert DuPont said.

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DuPont, a UTHealth infectious disease expert, said few people connected mosquitos and deadly illness in those days, but they knew better than to go to a place where tropical diseases were rampant.

“People from the north wouldn’t come to the south in the summertime because of concern about what turned out to be mosquito-borne diseases,” DuPont said.

Historians say a yellow fever epidemic in 1839 killed 12 percent of Houston’s tiny population and nearly 6 percent of the few thousand settlers here in 1867.

So how did those hardy souls fight off the bugs?

“They would put mud on their skin,” DuPont said. “They would wear long-sleeve shirts and bandanas around their necks and hats. Trying to limit the exposed skin area was the most effective thing.”

Houston historian Louis Aulbach said nighttime was the big problem.

“In the 19th century, they didn’t have air conditioning, and so you had to usually leave the windows open,” he said.

One option people had to keep the bugs away in those cases was to drape their beds with mosquito netting.

Big breakthroughs on mosquito-borne diseases were made as the United States dug the Panama Canal. Illnesses, especially malaria, became a major issue for the project managers, so the U.S. Army began researching the problem.

That led to the connection between mosquitos and disease, and to new methods of holding down the mosquito population.

As the 20th century began, the research began yielding strategies to drain off stagnant water, as well as new insecticides to kill the pests.

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