Max Vigilant is the head of operations at the mosquito and vector control unit at the Harris County Department of Public Health. He works out of an un-fancy building on the outskirts of Houston, doing the kind of work that is rarely noticed or covered by the media but which is of vital importance during the climate crisis: keeping the 7 million or so residents of Houston safe from diseases carried by mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes are not just irritating insects that wreck your camping trip or backyard BBQ. They are killers. In the long arc of human history, mosquitoes have killed far more people than bullets and bombs have. Malaria, which is carried by mosquitoes, still kills about 400,000 people a year (mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa). Mosquitoes carry a range of diseases, from yellow fever to Zika to Dengue fever.
In this Rolling Stone RS Reports video, I hang with Vigilant as he traps mosquitos and brings them to the lab to run genetic tests that can identify which viruses, if any, they are carrying. Along the way, Vigilant talks about the attack patterns of different mosquito species, why vector-borne diseases are a climate-justice issue, and how the climate crisis is making the entire Gulf Coast more hospitable for disease-carrying insects.
This video grew out of a story I wrote last December about how climate change is ushering in what Dr. Anthony Fauci has called a “new pandemic era.” Vigilant was one of the most compelling characters I met while reporting that story, not only because he runs what is widely regarded as the best mosquito-control unit in the U.S., but because he does it with such enthusiasm. Only Vigilant could hold up the dead body of a killer like aedes aegypti and say to me, “She’s kind of beautiful, isn’t she?”