Monday, October 17, 2011

MARINGOUINS --MOSQUITOES, THAT IS…

When I sat down at my desk in New Iberia after a hiatus of several months, the first beings to welcome me home were mosquitoes dancing against the window pane overlooking the backyard. “Welcome back,” they said, “we’ve been waiting for your allergic skin as it has always been the type we enjoy sampling.” Yes, it’s welcome back to the land of the mosquitoes, bayou country, Louisiana! However, I understand that I escaped the worst influx of them last month following several tropical storms.

Actually, New Iberia, Louisiana was the site where the scourge of yellow fever (mosquito-bred disease) struck twice during the 19th century. According to Glenn Conrad, author of New Iberia, yellow fever was introduced into Louisiana during the 1790’s, arriving in New Orleans via a ship from a Caribbean port. The ship carried pesky mosquitoes in its freight, which was transferred to steamboats plying the Louisiana bayous. In September, 1839, New Iberia experienced its first epidemic of yellow fever. During the onslaught of the disease, a black woman named Felicite, a native of Santo Domingo who lived in New Iberia and was immune to the disease, cared for the sick and dying victims, and even arranged for their burials. A plaque commemorating her caretaking stands on the parade ground between the Iberia Parish Library and the New Iberia City Hall.

Yellow fever disappeared from Teche country following the Civil War, but in July, 1867, another epidemic struck New Iberia, and nearly two-thirds of the city’s population suffered from the disease. “The list of dead included someone from nearly every household in the town,” Conrad reported. By October of that year, the disease disappeared from New Iberia.

When Yellow Fever appeared in Louisiana during 1878, New Iberians adopted preventative measures, burning sulphur, disinfecting, and quarantining, and somehow escaped the epidemics that had left 4,000 dead in New Orleans, over 100 in Morgan City, and nearly 200 in Baton Rouge. Conrad reported that few people realize that the last reported and authenticated case of yellow fever in the U.S. actually occurred in New Iberia, in 1906. A young teenager was treated by several yellow fever experts from New Orleans and recovered.

Until the turn of the century, Louisianians didn’t recognize the connection between frequent summer showers along the Gulf coast, warm, humid days and nights, the arrival of hordes of mosquitoes, and the onset of yellow fever. Citizens also failed to make the connection between the disappearance of the dreaded “maringouins” during the first cold days of Fall and the occurrence of frosts that ended yellow fever epidemics.

In an essay about Madeleine Hachard, a young Ursuline nun about whom I wrote in Their Adventurous Will, Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women, the infamous Louisiana mosquito appears during the Ursulines’ trip upriver to New Orleans as they continued their mission to educate women of Louisiana during the 18th century. “To the travel-weary nuns, the trip upriver seemed to stretch interminably; they were on the river nine days. The party had to set up camp every night an hour before sunset to avoid the swarming ‘maringouins’ or mosquitoes. Members of the crew cut cane and draped linen on the cane poles around the nuns’ mattresses to form curtains which would ward off the venomous mosquitoes. The Ursulines slept two to a pallet, fully clothed, but were still assailed by the insects…”

Just last month, Iberia Parish experienced an increase in species of floodwater mosquitoes due to tropical weather, and aerial mosquito spraying took place. Residents of the parish were told that if they heard low-flying aircraft overhead, they weren’t mosquito bombers but aerial mosquito sprayers, and residents shouldn’t look up for obvious reasons. I’m glad that the population of this species has been decimated because these mosquitoes have extended flight range and are numerous and aggressive biters!

And such is the character of my winged welcoming party when I arrived in “The Berry” a few days ago!
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