Americans Ignore Mosquito Risks

People march for federal immigration reform and against Arizona's controversial immigration law, Saturday, May 1, 2010 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jason Redmond)
AP Photo/Jason Redmond
One mosquito bite can paralyze you for life. But hey, why worry about it?

That attitude is frustrating public health officials worried about the spread of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Mid-July means the U.S. is entering peak West Nile virus season. Yet most Americans still aren't doing enough to fight the bite, says behavioral scientist Emily Zielinski-Gutierrez, DrPH, at the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in Ft. Collins, Colo.

"It really comes down to the fact that people are not enough afraid of West Nile virus to do something about it," Zielinski-Gutierrez tells WebMD. "People are actively choosing not to use mosquito repellent."

Americans on West Nile Virus: 'What, Me Worry?'

The active ingredient in most bug repellents is a chemical called DEET. Are we more afraid of DEET than of mosquitoes? Not most of us. In fact, a recent CDC survey shows that only half of Americans even know what DEET is.

The survey, conducted in October 2004, probed the reasons why we aren't using mosquito repellent.

"We asked why: Is it because it smells? Is it because you are concerned about the health effects of DEET? But less than 15% of people say these things," Zielinski-Gutierrez says. "Almost half of people say, "I just forgot about it," or "I didn't see any mosquitoes," or "I just wasn't thinking about it."

In 2003, Colorado had nearly 3,000 cases of West Nile virus. This year, at the CDC's annual West Nile virus conference, Colorado Department of Public Health epidemiologist John Pape offered a "top 10 list" of reasons why people don't wear DEET-containing repellents:

10. I'm not sure why I didn't use repellent.
9. I'm too lazy/I didn't have time.
8. I used other methods to avoid mosquito bites.
7. It smells bad.
6. (tie) I didn't have any repellent.
Mosquitoes don't bite me.
5. I don't go outside.
4. I'm concerned about health effects of DEET.
3. I forgot.
2. I don't see mosquitoes where I live.
1. I'm not worried/I'm not at risk.