Health Alarms

There used to be a time when “epidemic” meant a disease, not just a warning about one that sent people into a panic. Yet that’;s an unfortunate side effect of the ease with which information, particularly false information, can be spread through electronic technology. Perhaps it has to do with our acquired willingness to believe anything we see in print (as opposed to something spray-painted on a wall, which has pretty much the same level of reality as these Internet disease hoaxes).

Worse, hoaxes may dissuade people from seeking timely, accurate medical treatment to stem the spread of an actual health problem. Genuine, up-to-date information about epidemics, pandemics, plagues, and maladies can be found at the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo.

Meanwhile, fallacious online medical alerts include:

reality check

Flaming

Flaming is the practice of inundating someone with nasty e-mail messages until their system crashes. It is usually reserved for strategic displays of outrage over outlandish behavior, strong opinions, or just plain bad manners. It’;s fighting spam with spam, and it considered to be improper Netiquette, even if the slimy cuss deserves it. Under some circumstances, sending threatening e-mail messages is considered a criminal offense. Therefore, the best way to get back at a spammer is to block the Web site from your e-mail system and report it to the Community Action (or similar) address of your Internet access provider.

  • Flesh-eating bananas. The dreaded (and extremely rare) “flesh-eating disease” that gets so much television coverage when it appears in humans is a Group A streptococcus bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. It attacks and kills soft tissues under the skin and causes gangrene. A rumor started in early 2000 that it could be contracted by eating bananas. Rather than a disease warning, it sounded more like a scheme to damage Chiquita Brands International’;s controversial investments in Central America. This hoax was also maliciously attributed to an actual, but completely innocent, federal government worker whose phone starting ringing off its hook with inquiries

  • Now for the facts: The disease is real, but you can’;t get it from bananas, so the warning is a hoax. Group A strep is spread through direct contact with secretions from an infected person’;s nose or throat. So unless that’;s where you’;ve been storing your banana, there is absolutely no chance of catching it from “the world’;s most perfect food.”

  • Ovarian/cervical cancer test warning. As if the danger of ovarian and cervical cancer is not authentic enough, warnings pop up on the Web urging women to have “rare, additional” tests performed by their gynecologist “because I know someone who didn’;t do this, and she died.” When this chain letter began, it was followed by back-and-forth e-mail between people who called it a hoax and those who argued that all available tests should be used in the fight against cancer in women. Both sides have valid arguments, but the only one that benefited directly was the health care industry. As with most medical advice, get it from your physician

  • How to survive a heart attack when you’;re alone. Incorrectly attributed to an article in the Mended Hearts, Inc., newsletter, this chain letter suggested that, if your heart stops beating, or if you’;re having a heart attack, you have 10 seconds to start coughing in order to provide oxygen and to restart your heart. The American Heart Association (AHA), with whom Mended Hearts is affiliated, does not recommend this technique. In fact, the AHA advises that no studies conclude that coughing is more reliable than calling 911 and administering CPR. The AHA also urges the public to know the early signs of heart attack, which may include pallor and chest pain that moves to the neck, shoulder, and arms. For current information, browse to www.americanheart.org.

  • Antiperspirants cause breast cancer. Coming out of the same left field as “the body breathes through pores in the skin,” this rumor insists that blocking perspiration also prevents the body from purging itself of toxins, which leads to cancer. According to the Texas Department of Health, toxins are purged, in part, through the lymph system, not through perspiration. The American Cancer Society is not aware of any evidence that shows substances in deodorants or antiperspirants to be toxic or to cause DNA damage. The chief thing that happens when you use deodorants is that you smell like a strawberry

  • Aspartame lawsuit. Aspartame is a chemical sweetener produced by the Monsanto Corporation. It is used as a sugar substitute under the name NutraSweet, Equal, and Spoonful. Activist Betty Martini, through an organization called Mission Possible, maintains that Aspartame, under certain circumstances, produces symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis, and thus may lead to a misdiagnosis in patients presenting those symptoms. An e-mail of an unsourced article written by “Nancy Markle” (who may or may not exist, according to Ms. Martini) cites that the “World Environmental Conference and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and FDA are suing against soft drink companies for Collusion with Monsanto,” and gives a women’;s health service organization for collaboration. When contacted for this book, the women’;s organization stressed that they have “no connection at all” with the e-mail

What makes the e-mail so compelling is a line that says, “Even if this is only partially correct, I find this to be quite scary.” Martini’;s Web site, which includes numerous links and endorsements, is at www.dorway.com.

reality check

BubbleBoy Virus

The Seinfeld TV series may have been “a show about nothing,” but a virus named after one of its episodes turned out to be quite something indeed. This one is real. The episode and the virus are both “BubbleBoy,” in which George Castanza accidentally infected an immunodeficient youth who was confined to a plastic bubble. The virus (which only infects Microsoft Outlook 98, Outlook 2000, and Outlook Express that comes with Internet Explorer 5) is a “worm” that creates files that reregister your operating system to “BubbleBoy/Vandelay Industries.” It then acts like the Melissa/Mailissa virus (see page 144) to send itself to everyone in the user’;s e-mail address book. The BubbleBoy can be spread when the e-mail

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