ATLANTA - Inquiries to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about reports that HIV-tainted needles were being left in movie theater seats have largely ceased, but other fictitious "urban legends" continue to spread on the Internet, leaving health care officials waiting to counter the next AIDS "electronic scare."
While the Internet is universally hailed as a powerful medium to distribute knowledge, the information superhighway is turning out to be a two-way street. It is also a convenient vehicle for those seeking to commit fraud by preying on the medically desperate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has gone to the lengths of linking up with 23 states in a loose confederation of AIDS Health Fraud Information Networks to combat the sale of false cures and treatments peddled over the Internet.
Urban legends are the cultural myths spread by word of mouth, usually from friend to friend, to warn or scare. They are the rumors that ripple through the country that turn out to be totally false but are nearly impossible to stamp out. The rise of the Internet and e-mail and the simultaneous spread of HIV and AIDS are fueling an onslaught of misinformation and deception that medical professionals are at pains to correct.
Last October, the CDC began receiving inquiries about reports that HIV-tainted needles were being left in movie theater seats and pay phone coin return slots. The incidents were said to be occurring in Dallas and Denver. Then reports began appearing on the Internet that the CDC had investigated the incidents, giving credence to the original rumor. Other reports circulated by e-mail related to how the CDC had "confirmed" the presence of HIV in the needles.
None of it was true. There were no needles left in pay phone coin slots or in movie theater seats. The CDC did not investigate the incidents; nor did the agency test any needle purportedly found in a movie theater or pay phone. By March, according to CDC spokeswoman Kitty Bina, the CDC was busy setting the record straight for 30 to 40 callers a day inquiring about the reports of HIV-tainted needles hidden like infectious landmines.
It had reached the critical mass necessary to graduate into the ranks of urban legend, which meant it had taken on a life of its own, devoid of truth and repeatedly cropping up in new incarnations. E-mail from Bombay, India, related that a woman contracted HIV after being stuck by a needle left in a movie theater seat.
Reports then surfaced that young toughs were sticking people with HIV-infected needles and handing them a card that read, "Welcome to the world of HIV." This is a reworking of the infamous AIDS Mary urban legend of the 1980s. In this fictitious account, a man wakes up following a night of casual sex with a woman he doesn't know to find a message scrawled in lipstick on his bathroom mirror: "Welcome to the world of AIDS."
The CDC fought fire with fire by responding to the needle-stick rumors with a posting of its own on its Web site. "The CDC has received inquiries about a variety of reports or warnings about used needles left by HIV-infected injection drug users in coin return slots of pay phones and movie theater seats," the CDC said. "These reports and warnings are being circulated on the Internet and by e-mail and fax. Some reports have falsely indicated that the CDC `confirmed' the presence or absence of HIV in any sample related to these rumors. The majority of these reports and warnings appear to have no foundation in fact."
While noting that needles are sometimes found in the community outside of health care settings, the CDC notice said the risk of transmission from discarded needles is extremely low. "CDC does not recommend testing discarded needles to assess the presence or absence of infectious agents. Management of exposed persons should be done on a case-by-case evaluation of (1) the risk of a bloodborne pathogen infection in the source and (2) the nature of the injury. Anyone who is injured from a needle stick in a community setting should contact their physician or go to an emergency department as soon as possible. The injury should be reported to the local or state health departments. CDC is not aware of any cases of HIV being transmitted by a needle-stick injury outside a health care setting."
While the needle-stuck rumor has apparently run its course, with calls about it to the CDC trailing off by July, it will never completely go away. "Rumors are rumors," Bina noted. "I don't know if you ever get rid of a rumor."
Other fictions that have followed AIDS Mary onto the Net are a slew of urban legends that include a chain letter warning that sodium laureth sulfate, an ingredient in some brand-name shampoos, causes cancer; reports that anti-perspirants cause breast cancer; and the advice that "cough CPR" can save the life of a heart attack victim. Urban legends now have their own Web site, www.urbanlegends.about.com, where the folklore is collected and debunked.
Also appearing on the Internet are health cures that are literally too good to be true. Health care fraud costs billions of dollars per year, according to Betty Dodson, AIDS coordinator for the FDA division of federal-state relations, who is spearheading the effort to organize AIDS Health Fraud Task Force Network around the country (www.fda.gov/oashi/aids/eval). The Internet is a prime tool for those peddling false cures that are very expensive or require costly travel to another country, Dodson said, who added that the real danger of these frauds is that they lure the ill into abandoning legitimate treatment for the fantasy of a miracle cure.
Dodson said the con artists who were selling cancer cures 20 years ago have repackaged their scams for HIV/AIDS and gone on-line.
While the Internet is a popular medium for deception, it is an excellent way to keep accurately informed. With 23 states now part of the FDA's anti-fraud effort, "We are arming the public with information so people can make informed choices," she said. "We expose fraud when it is blatant."
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