Anthropology and Sociology
16 November 2020

Learning to Live with Mosquitoes in Medellín, Colombia

In Medellín, Colombia, the World Mosquito Program is intervening against mosquito-borne diseases in an original, inventive way that Rosie Sims explores in her PhD thesis. Her ethnographic study argues that the World Mosquito Program is premised on the cultivation of coexistence between humans, microbes, and mosquitoes, and unpacks what that entails empirically. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I have always been interested in questions of global health and the development of medical therapies and technological solutions to health challenges. In my master’s degree, I worked on drug development for neglected diseases and I was planning on deepening this topic in my PhD. However, when I was in my first year, my attention was caught by the Zika pandemic that occurred in 2015–2016. I became focused on mosquito-borne diseases and more specifically on the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is responsible for transmitting dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. I was fascinated by the myriad of inventive ways in which humans try to manage this insect, and a serendipitous encounter with a Colombian entomologist at the World Health Organization led me to discover the World Mosquito Program, which became the subject of my doctoral research. 

The World Mosquito Program (WMP) is a global health intervention that uses the mosquito itself a as a biotechnological tool against viruses like Zika, dengue and chikungunya. The WMP discovered that by infecting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with Wolbachia bacteria, they could significantly reduce the vector’s ability to transmit diseases. What’s more, the bacteria are passed on to the mosquitos’ offspring when they reproduce with their “wild” counterparts. In this way, the WMP are releasing these Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in cities around the world with the idea of gradually replacing a pathogenic mosquito population with its bacteria-infected version. 

I was intrigued by this approach to such an old yet persistent health challenge. Instead of the more usual method of targeting the mosquito for elimination or eradication as a means to prevent disease, this intervention is proposing that we learn to live with a mosquito that has been biologically altered, asking humans to coexist with an insect usually framed as an enemy. This reconfiguration is what my dissertation set out to explore in the city of Medellín, Colombia. 

Can you describe your research questions and the methodology you use to approach this reconfiguration?

Ethnographically exploring the case of the WMP in Medellín, my thesis considers three series of questions. The first explores how a shift in the object of intervention (from a mosquito to an ecosystem) is constructed: What does a future that departs from eradication look like? What kinds of life are being made and unmade? 

The second focuses on a critical examination of the epistemologies and practices of Global Health, which emerge and occur in situated places (in this case Medellín): How do local politics and practices produce Global Health? 

Finally, while the WMP’s approach does not necessarily signify a radical departure from old ways of thinking in public health (we are still intervening in disease ecologies), the ways in which we go about rearranging pathological relations point to the possibility of a different way of being and relating to the creatures, big and small, who inhabit this Earth. The third series of questions are: What does it mean to live with a creature like the mosquito? And what is entailed in the cultivation of coexistence?

To answer these questions, I deeply embedded myself within the World Mosquito Program in Medellín, where I carried out over 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork. I mainly conducted participant observation with entomologists, epidemiologists, clinic nurses, the WMP community participation team, and Medellín’s residents, as well as interviews with health experts in institutions in Bogotá, including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Ministry of Health. 

What are your major findings?

My dissertation tells the story of what it empirically means to live with the bacteria-infected mosquito in Medellín. I argue that the WMP is premised on the cultivation of multispecies coexistence, through reconfiguring human-mosquito-microbe relations. Rather than singling out the mosquito for elimination, this intervention is engaged in the calibration and management of an ecosystem, exemplifying a different approach to global health.

The dissertation unpacks the project of coexistence and considers the social, entomological, epidemiological, and political labour involved in its cultivation, as well as the material and affective engagements that characterise this work. I analyse how this coexistence is experimental and how the city is turned into an urban laboratory, all the way into the homes of Medellín’s residents who are hosting mosquito traps for the project.

Container of mosquitoes
Container of mosquitoes ready for release.

The dissertation finds that coexistence is embodied and ambivalent as it is always mediated by human blood, whether in the sweaty and humid heat of the insectary where the infected mosquitos are bred and cultivated, or in the human clinics on the breezy mountainside, where human bodies provide blood samples for scientific measurement. The dissertation also reveals political disputes surrounding how to live together with bloodsucking critters, and what is at stake in the management of human-mosquito relations. Finally, I show how coexistence burdens society in unequal ways, and thus is always political.

In the light of these findings, how do you see our coexistence with the coronavirus?

COVID-19 has again highlighted our close entanglements with other animal and viral species. Today, we are learning to coexist with an invisible virus in our midst, and we are all potential vectors. Technical objects such as masks, ventilators, vaccines, hand sanitiser and computer screens come to mediate our multispecies coexistence, yet how to manage this new territory as well as the potentiality of our own vector capacities is profoundly political. The question of opening up countries or going in lockdown means preparing for different outcomes according to existing biological and socio-economic inequalities in any given society. The burden of coexistence with the virus is, and will continue to be, felt more acutely by disadvantaged, discriminated and marginalised communities. Whose lives are endangered for the so-called “greater good” is a political decision, and I think we must remain attentive to the ways in which different layers of society will bear the impacts of political and social decisions surrounding this coexistence with the virus. 

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Rosie Sims defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in August 2020. Assistant Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva presided the committee, which included Professor Vinh-Kim Nguyen and Professor Alex Nading, co-supervisors, Dr Ann Kelly, external expert, King’s College London, and Professor Javier Lezaun, external expert, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford.

Full citation of the PhD thesis
Sims, Rosie. “Cultivating Coexistence: Global Health, Mosquitos and the Reconfiguring of Multispecies Relations in Medellin, Colombia.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.
For access please contact Rosie Sims.

Pictures by Rosie Sims.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.