Forgotten Cyprus hero who eradicated island's malaria

By Tabitha Morgan
Cyprus analyst

  • Published
Mehmet AzizImage source, The Cyprus Review
Image caption,
It took just over three years for Mehmet Aziz to complete his task in Cyprus

They called him The Great Liberator. His name was Mehmet Aziz and he was behind one of Cyprus's most important achievements of the last century. And yet no-one apart from a handful of Cypriots has heard of him.

Aziz was a Turkish Cypriot health official who ensured that Cyprus became the first malarial country in the world to completely eradicate the disease.

Known to his compatriots as "the fly man", he had studied under Nobel-prize winning malaria specialist Sir Ronald Ross, who had found the type of mosquito that transmitted the disease. I came across Aziz's story accidentally in the course of researching a book about British colonial Cyprus.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
It was Sir Ronald Ross who proved that mosquitoes transmitted malaria

By 1936, Cyprus - then a British colony - was known as one of the world's most malarial countries, with around 18,000 cases every year.

The disease was particularly devastating for children. One elderly man, recalling his childhood, explained that "an awful lot of youngsters never made it, others were not fit to do a day's work after contracting the disease".

Military-style campaign against malaria

Ten years later, Aziz, in his capacity as chief health inspector, secured a grant from the Colonial Development Fund to eradicate the malaria-transmitting anopheles mosquito from Cyprus.

He planned his campaign along military lines, dividing the entire island up into 500 grids, each of which could be covered by one man over 12 days.

His team worked their way systematically through the grid plan, metre by painstaking metre, bombarding all sources of standing water (including drinking wells) with DDT.

Image source, Constantinos Emmanuelle
Image caption,
This map shows how the eradication campaign progressed in 1946 and 1947

Aziz's team pioneered a technique to minimise its use, pouring a thin petroleum film on to water surfaces to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching.

According to the Cyprus Review of June 1948, "every pool and stream and area of water-logged ground" was sprayed with insecticide. Even the hoof-prints of animals were treated. Aziz's men waded into marshes and were lowered into caves by ropes.

Tested areas were checked weekly for evidence of mosquito larvae and, if necessary, sprayed again. While the campaign lasted, all traffic moving from "unclean" to "clean" areas had to be sprayed.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a preventable, curable disease caused by Plasmodium parasites, spread to people by the bites of female mosquitoes in search of a blood meal.

Once infected, people become very sick: the parasites infect cells in the liver and red blood cells. Eventually the disease affects the whole body, including the brain, and can be fatal.

Image source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
Malaria is spread by parasites transmitted to people by bites from infected female Anopheles mosquitoes

In 2019 there were 229 million cases worldwide and an estimated 409,000 deaths, two-thirds of them children.

Source: World Health Organization.

Three-year search for mosquito colonies

Aziz's daughter Turkan remembered her father's official, military-style sanitary inspector's uniform, complete with epaulettes and chevrons. She also recalled childhood picnics spent traipsing after him along dried-up river beds, as he searched tirelessly for sources of water seepage.

A visiting US malariologist joined Aziz on a visit to a Cypriot village where 72% of the children showed signs of malarial infection.

Aziz, he noted, "was adept at finding ladders and searching the high ceilings" as he sought out mosquito colonies, eventually discovering "a fair batch on the moist walls of the village bathhouse".

It took just over three years. By February 1950, Cyprus was the world's first malaria-free country.

Hailed a hero and then airbrushed away

Aziz himself was hailed by the London News Chronicle as "The Great Liberator", while his Greek and Turkish Cypriot colleagues were described as "front-line fighters in the anti-malaria battle". He was awarded the MBE and applauded by the Secretary of State for the Colonies for having won "fame among doctors and scientists all over the world".

Once his mission to eradicate malaria was complete, Aziz continued his task as chief health inspector, running numerous health education campaigns on infectious diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis, and lecturing at universities across the Eastern Mediterranean.

But his success did not secure him enduring fame. What makes his story particularly interesting is not so much his remarkable achievement, but the way in which it has been completely airbrushed out of a nation's history.

Image source, Constantinos Emmanuelle
Image caption,
Mehmet Aziz after retirement with his wife Hifsiye

The reason for that lies in the ensuing history of a small island ripped apart by a vicious independence - and subsequently internecine - struggle.

The end of World War Two (in which many Cypriots fought bravely), together with the election of a Labour government in the UK, had led many to hope the island could soon cast off colonial rule.

From independence to division

Unluckily for Cyprus, unrest in other parts of the Middle East meant that Britain's "unsinkable aircraft carrier" became more strategically important than ever. The British were not going to leave easily.

In 1955, five years after Aziz's resounding success, Cypriot frustration at British intransigence erupted in violent struggle. While the island finally won independence from Britain in 1960, it became increasingly fragmented along ethnic, religious and political lines and the story of Mehmet Aziz slipped quietly between the cracks.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north in response to a coup on the island backed by the military junta then in power in Greece.

Since then, the northern third has been mainly inhabited by Turkish Cypriots and the southern two-thirds by Greek Cypriots.

That division has left little space for commemoration - still less celebration - of someone like Mehmet Aziz.

The "fly man" hero who led Cyprus's anti-malaria campaign died aged 98 in 1991 in the northern part of Nicosia, having spent his retirement living quietly on his state pension. He was buried without official ceremony.

Aziz's rehabilitation, by Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots alike, could be one small step towards telling another national story about Cyprus.

Tabitha Morgan is the author of Sweet and Bitter Island: A History of the British in Cyprus 1878-1960.

Media caption,

How one doctor is fighting malaria in rural hospital in Sierra Leone.

Key events in Cyprus

July 1878: British arrive, having acquired the right to "occupy and administer the territory" from the Ottoman Porte

May 1925: Cyprus becomes a crown colony

April 1955: EOKA (The Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) launches a guerrilla campaign to end British rule on the island and unite Cyprus with Greece

August 1960: Cyprus gains independence from Britain. Under an elaborate constitution the President, Archbishop Makarios, is chosen from the Greek Cypriot community; his deputy, Dr Fazil Küçük is a Turkish Cypriot.

December 1963: "Bloody Christmas": Intercommunal violence erupts following the announcement of planned constitutional change. Turkish Cypriots seek refuge in militarised enclaves across the island.

July 1974: Greece's military junta launches a short-lived coup in Cyprus, forcing Makarios to flee. Turkey launches a military invasion in response. Cyprus is effectively partitioned, with a United Nations-manned buffer zone running across the island from east to west. An estimated 150,000 Greek Cypriots flee to the southern part of the island.

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