The Economics of Mosquitoes

You might not think that mosquitoes would be a great topic for economists, but two recent papers prove otherwise.

I grew up in Minnesota. The state motto is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which meant that there was never a shortage of mosquitoes. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go in the backyard in the summer because the mosquitoes were so bad. At some point along the line, the government started spending money on mosquito abatement in the Twin Cities, the mosquito problem died down, and our backyard was reclaimed. Minnesota mosquitoes didn’t carry diseases, so they were merely an inconvenience. In areas with malaria, however, mosquitoes are far more than an annoyance.

Hoyt Bleakley, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, documents the long-term benefits of malaria eradication in the American South in the 1920s, and then later (when DDT became available) in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. By comparing areas that did and did not have malaria problems before the eradication campaigns, Bleakley cleanly measures some of the benefits of abolishing malaria. Using individual-level census data, he finds that getting rid of malaria led to higher wages and literacy rates for children who grew up post-eradication. Wages rose 10 to 40 percent after eradication in the places that were worst affected by malaria. (He also has some surprising and powerful findings with respect to worms.)

David Cutler, Winnie Fung, Michael Kremer, and Monica Singhal, in a recent NBER Working Paper, document equally impressive impacts of anti-malaria campaigns in India. They find a 12 percent increase in literacy and primary school completion rates following the implementation of these programs.

Papers like these are important reminders of how radically technological advances have changed our lives. It’s important to remember that not long ago, infant mortality, malnutrition, and disease burden were the norm.


Thanks - that's real economics.

Aso, it's worth remembering that topics we'd call 'development economics' aren't just about Third World problems: the eradication campaign in the Southern USA happened in living memory.

It is also one half of the cost-benefit analysis for fiunding the research, keeping ahead of pesticide resistance in mosquitoes and drug resistance in Plasmidium Falciparum.

This is relevant to Europe, too: climate change is extending the geographic range of the Anopheles mosquito, far to the North of its traditional strongholds in Italy and Southern France.


Great post.

In case you need more convincing that malaria is a terrible disease, check out my dissertation research (link below) on the economic effects of in utero and postnatal exposure to malaria.

Using weather shocks to predict malaria incidence in the U.S. (c. 1900-1940), I show that individuals who were born in (more) malarial state-years have significantly lower educational attainment, all else being equal.


The numbers are quite impressive!

But isn't there a potential (big) endogeneity problem here?

Getting rid of mosquitoes is probably correlated with other measures to improve the living conditions in a region...


There was an excellent article in the New Yorker a few years back about Fred Soper, a DDT-wielding malaria warrior of the pre-Silent Spring hysteria era, that the article claims saved millions of lives.

George 3

Malaria has existed in the Thames Estuary in England. I recall reading that it was a problem in Denmark too. It is not really a tropical disease. Neither is Yellow Fever. It existed as far north as Nova Scotia in North America.

Dr. Troy Camplin

Anyone who has, has had family who died from, or has been economically disadvantaged by malaria should sue Rachael Carson.


Rachel Carson did good work.

Look into Victor Yannacone, the dude who sued to ban DDT.

Look into how mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT.

Look into the decline in bird populations and the recovery of the Bald Eagle after the DDT ban.


The Bald Eagle decline happened before DDT.

Bald Eagles and DDT

Scroll up and down to see the misleading stories on other birds.


"Every bald eagle found dead in the U.S., between 1961-1977 (266 birds) was analyzed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who reported no adverse effects caused by DDT or its residues."


Science that Wasn't

"Environmental activists planned to defame scientists who defended DDT. In an uncontradicted deposition in a federal lawsuit, Victor Yannacone, a founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, testified that he attended a meeting in which Roland Clement of the Audubon Society and officials of the Environmental Defense Fund decided that University of California-Berkeley professor and DDT-supporter Thomas H. Jukes was to be muzzled by attacking his credibility."





I agree with pierre. It's very likely (as someone who grew in in both India and America) that there are hidden variables that cause both the eradication campaigns and the rise in literacy/prosperity. It isn't clear from Dr Levitt's synopsis here if any of those hidden variables were accounted for.

On another note, I was wondering about the popularity of graphical models and dynamic bayesian networks in economics and policy research. These statistical techniques can be set up to show evidence of causality, not just correlation.

Dr. Troy Camplin

One doesn't have to kill every mosquito. You just have to kill enough to get the malaria population to crash. Once malaria is eliminated, you can have all the mosquitoes you want (not that I think you want al that many).


Yannacone caused more misinformation and turmoil in the history of DDT than anyone else. He was a lawyer with mediocre skills who got way over his head. He started out with a fledgling EDF but became a loud mouth poseur for the cameras. When the EDF received serious funding from the Ford Foundation they were told to get a properly credentialed head counsel. Yannacone went ballistic and began making up accusations for the press. He did the same thing when he took himself off the Agent Orange case but was viciously jealous of the lawyers who replaced him and settled the case.