- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

Beware the killer bananas.

"Please forward to everyone you love!" urges an Internet message that has streaked across the country in the past month.

"Warning: Several shipments of bananas from Costa Rica have been infected with necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria," the message reads claiming to be from the "Mannheim Research Institute, Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia."

"If you have eaten a banana in the last two to three days and come down with a fever followed by a skin infection seek MEDICAL ATTENTION!"

The alert goes on to say that this banana plague "eats two to three centimeters of flesh per hour, amputation is likely and death possible."

Oh, the horror. The banana, the bacteria… .

It's an urban myth a hoax of such behemoth and giddy proportions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA, Chiquita and the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation have issued statements within the last four days meant to reassure the public.

According to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner, the CDC has received hundreds of calls in the last two weeks from alarmed consumers who have received the banana alarm, or read about it somewhere on line.

The Urban Legends Reference Pages (www.snopes.com), for example, lists the story under "Toxins du Jour" and offers a thoughtful deconstruction of the tale.

Still, the story has made much mischief.

"We had to issue a statement. We haven't gotten this many calls since the AIDS needles rumor," Mr. Skinner said Thursday.

That hair-raiser claimed that hypodermic needles infected with the HIV virus were being placed by terrorists in public phone booths and movie theaters.

But back to the bananas.

The official CDC statement allows that the streptococcus bacteria that actually causes the so-called flesh-eating disease "can be transmitted in foods, but this would be an unlikely cause for necrotizing fasciitis. The FDA and CDC agree that the bacteria cannot survive long on the surface of a banana."

The CDC then refers readers to its "Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease" Web page, which offers the straightforward details about "invasive GAS diseases" like necrotizing fasciitis of which there were 800 cases in the United States in 1998.

Both Chiquita, one of the world's leading banana exporting companies, and the FDA dismissed the story as "totally false" in public statements.

The Michigan-based National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation agreed. "If you have been the recipient of the ridiculous e-mail going around claiming that Costa Rican bananas are 'infected,' be assured it is false."

Dr. John Shieh, the group's consulting physician, noted that swallowing these bacteria "would only make you sick with vomiting and diarrhea" and that the flesh-eating claim was pure bunk.

The University of California at Riverside, meanwhile, has its own banana-borne woes. Several weeks ago, an employee at UCR received the dreaded e-mail and sent it on to a few pals as a joke.

Unfortunately, the message emerged with an official UCR electronic tag on it lending the impression that the university had endorsed the story. A UCR spokesman said that the school is now receiving about 50 inquiries a day about it.

Why do people fall for such an idea?

For one thing, many folks adore such ghastly grist. Tales of deadly spiders in public toilets or cyanide-dusted telephone booths are regaled in song, story, on the Internet and at countless slumber parties nationwide.

There is even "Urban Legend Generator" software available, which allows the modern wag to plug in the subject, scenario and consequences then e-mail the finished yarn into cyberspace.

Like any legend with lasting shelf life, the banana e-mail mixes the loony with the factual, then adds official-sounding connotations.

The message claims the FDA won't issue a countrywide warning lest they trigger a panic of epic proportions. Some 15,000 people are infected, the message advises.

So far, no one knows who originated the message, and, according to the CDC, there are no official investigations under way.

"This hoax stinks," said Joey Skaggs, a Manhattan-based "media prankster" whose plausible and highly creative publicity stunts have fooled the likes of CNN and other news organizations.

"It's malicious, it has no purpose and no content other than to worry people," Mr. Skaggs added. "I wouldn't even rate this one."

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