Urban myths and the death of civil society

This is my column today.

This was something I had been meaning to write about immediately after Valentine’s Day, but I guess we all got sidetracked by seemingly more serious and scandalous matters.

On Valentine’s Day, I received through e-mail the latest reincarnation of the so-called AIDS Mary urban myth. The e-mail was forwarded to me by a college friend, who received it from one of her friends, who…well, we already know how that works. It’s like that “half-half” SMS joke that many people seem to think is funny because it has been forwarded to my cell phone at least five times already. It’s not funny because it ridicules people based merely on their physical appearance rather than on their actions.

But to go back to the latest reincarnation of the AIDS Mary urban myth, I checked the return path of the e-mail and was quite shocked to see some familiar names. In short, people who should know better than to forward messages of dubious origins and even more dubious, if not preposterously ridiculous, claims.

AIDS Mary (or the male counterpart AIDS Harry) is an urban myth that’s been going around since the early eighties when very little about HIV/AIDS was still known. According to the legend, there was this person who could not accept having been infected and therefore deliberately sought to infect others. This is a myth. It is not true although there is one recorded case of a woman in Tennessee who infected one person with HIV/AIDS after having unprotected sex with many (she said her problem was inability to say no to sex rather than conscious intent to infect others). But even if there were people intent on deliberately infecting others through sex, one can always refuse or practice safer sex practices. However, there is no documented case of anyone that deliberately attacked others with HIV-tainted needles.

I am sure you have come across e-mails that perpetuate these urban myths. Most of these warn people about syndicates that steal kidneys, gangs that prowl the night in their cars with the headlights off and mowing down people who would flash headlights at them, etc. I normally do not give these e-mails any further thought and simply condemn them to the trash bin. However, a number of my students who knows my involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention did ask me about the claims made in that particular e-mail. It turns out that a number of people posted the e-mail as bulletins in Friendster last Valentines Day, which seem to indicate that yes, there are many people out there that are prone to believe the fallacies promoted by urban myths.

The subject of the e-mail was AIDS!!! BE AWARE (the three exclamation points leave no doubt as to the alarmist nature of the e-mail). I am reprinting the e-mail in full in italics, along with my reaction and comments.

“A few weeks ago, in a cinema, a person felt something poking from her seat. When she got up to see what it was, she found a needle sticking out of the seat with a note attached saying “You have just been infected by HIV (AIDS).” Previous e-mails of this nature had the HIV-tainted needles sticking out of the handles of gasoline station pumps, in toilet seats, and from the back seats of taxicabs. I’ve also come across that tall tale about someone with HIV/AIDS going berserk and inflicting revenge on the world by deliberately poking needles into other people in public places. There have been no actual reported or documented cases of any of these incidents happening anywhere in the world.

“The Disease Control Center reports many similar events in many other cities recently. All tested needles were HIV Positive. The Center also reports that needles have been found in cash dispensers (ATM) at public banking machines. We ask everyone to use extreme caution. All public chairs/seats should be inspected with vigilance and caution before use. A careful visual inspection should be enough. In addition, they ask that each of you pass this message along to all members of your family and your friends of the potential danger.” The Center for Disease Control in the United States, which is the recognized global authority when it comes to infectious diseases, has disowned having made the report. In fact, the CDC has repeatedly stressed that infections from HIV-tainted needles are a hoax.

The probability that HIV can live outside the body for more than an hour is almost nil. The virus is dependent on certain body fluids (mostly blood and semen) in order to live outside the body. It would be almost impossible to taint needles with the virus without some kind of body fluid present in the syringe. Blood curdles easily and becomes inhospitable to the virus. It would also be difficult to get the virus into a nerve in one’s body through accidental pricking; even doctors with all their training have difficulty inserting an IV needle into a willing patient. The only cases of infection through accidental needle pricks happened in hospitals during medical procedures where fresh blood is present.

“Recently, one doctor has narrated a somewhat similar instance that happened to one of his patients at the Praia Cinema in Delhi. A young girl engaged and about to be married in a couple of months, was pricked while the movie was going on. The tag with the needle had the message: “Welcome to the World of HIV family”. Again, there is no record anywhere that something like that has ever happened. The message “Welcome to the World of HIV/Family” is a variation of what has been a cinematic cliché in movies with revenge as its plot. The woman seeking revenge usually scrawls a variation of that message using lipstick in a motel mirror. In short, it’s too cliché for comfort.

Though the doctors told her family that it takes about 6 months before the virus grows strong enough to start damaging the system and a healthy victim could survive about 5-6 years, the girl died in 4 months, perhaps more because of the “Shock thought”. We all have to be careful at public places. Just think about saving a life by forwarding this message. Please, take a few seconds of your time to pass this along. Remember to pass this on to everyone you know... Probably, your mail can help save a life. The six-month window period is prescribed for HIV testing. It takes about six months for the body to develop enough anti-bodies detectable by the test. But a person with HIV can live for a very long time with medication. There is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS but there are drugs that can prolong the onset of AIDS. No, you can’t save a life by forwarding that e-mail.

There is some quick comfort that can be derived from the thought that as long as we follow certain warnings, we can protect ourselves and the people we care about from HIV and from other terrible things. But this kind of comfort is dangerous. It creates denial of the real behaviors that increases our vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection. It also puts the blame on others rather than encourages people to take responsibility for their own safety.

Information is the key in preventing HIV/AIDS infection. And information about HIV/AIDS, as well as access to services related to HIV/AIDS prevention, is readily available. Unfortunately, it seems not for long anymore. Almost all non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention have already closed shop and the remaining ones are in the throes of death. Donor support for NGOs has dwindled. Whatever funding is available is hopelessly tied up in bureaucratic red tape and turf issues.

Civil society’s participation in HIV/AIDS prevention is practically gone as most HIV/AIDS programs are now “devolved” to local government units. There is some wisdom in this move, but there are also many disadvantages and loopholes that imperil real and sustainable HIV/AIDS prevention in the country. We all know what happens when government is left alone to manage funds and programs.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in this country. HIV/AIDS infections are actually on the rise and the expertise, participation, dedication and commitment of NGOs is needed. Unfortunately, everyone in power seems to think civil society is synonymous with trouble. The systematic strangling of NGOs working in HIV/AIDS prevention is something that we will all pay dearly in the very near future. It’s sad and tragic.


KD Patrick said…
You have provided a lot of good information. I would like to add a plea for readers to consider helping people living in the U.S. affiliated Pacific region--American Samoa, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam--which suffers enormous health disparities due in part to limited Federal assistance, and in part due to the post-colonial era per capita income: for example, it is only $2,900 in the Marshall Islands, and $2,300 in the Federated States of Micronesia. For comparison, the U.S. per capita income is $46,000. Even a small donation to the GUAHAN Project (http://www.guahanproject.org/index.php)--the regional AIDS service organization--can make a huge difference in stemming the tide of HIV in these small, culturally rich enclaves that could be destroyed by HIV/AIDS.

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