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Flesh-Eating Disease from Unwashed Underwear (Analysis)

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NOT TRUE, fortunately. The so-called "flesh-eating disease" — known to doctors as necrotizing fasciitis — cannot be contracted by putting on unwashed undergarments. Necrotizing fasciitis is a severe infection of the skin and underlying soft tissues caused by certain types of bacteria — mainly group A streptococcus (better known as the cause of strep throat) — which enter the body through cuts, burns, or open sores.

Though exposure to these bacteria is possible through direct contact with people who are already infected, group A streptococcus is not typically transmitted via inanimate objects such as articles of clothing (see CDC factsheet).

Copycat hoax

If parts of the text sound familiar, that's because they were paraphrased from a similar forwarded message circulating since 2003 which claims a woman traveling in South America became infected with parasites after wearing a damp bra.

One portion of that message read as follows:

ALL PLEASE WASH ALL BRAS, UNDERWEAR WHEN YOU BUY BEFORE WEARING THEM. WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT PARASITE IS IN OUR CLOTHES WHEN WE BUY THEM.

As you can see in this excerpt, it's clear that phrases from the above were copied verbatim into the present text:

TO ALL , PLEASE WASH ALL BRAS, UNDERWEAR ( ALL CLOTHING ) WHEN YOU BUY BEFORE WEARING THEM. YOU CAN THROW THEN IN THE DRYER FOR A QUICK SPIN TO KILL THE PARASITES TOO !!

WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT PARASITE IS IN OUR CLOTHES WHEN WE BUY THEM. FORWARD TO EVERYBODY YOU KNOW.

Parasites vs. bacteria

Careful readers will have also noted that the copied-and-pasted passages referring to "parasites" contradict other parts of the text which speak of undergarments contaminated with, quote, "flesh-eating bacteria." While both bacteria and parasites can be agents of disease, they are completely different kinds of biological entities. The terms aren't interchangeable.

Flesh-eating bananas

The message is also reminiscent of a hoax circulating since 2000 which claims that necrotizing fasciitis is being spread via contaminated bananas imported from Costa Rica (needless to say, this too was a false alarm).

The photos

The photographs attached to this email — of which I've only included three examples of the original ten — appear to be authentic and do document some sort of medical condition — perhaps more than one medical condition — but whatever it may be, that condition is definitely not necrotizing fasciitis, the visible symptoms of which are more akin to an open wound revealing the deterioration of deeper layers of tissue.

Sources and further reading:

Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease
Centers for Disease Control, 11 October 2005

Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infection
ADAM Healthcare Center, 9 November 2005

Necrotizing Fasciitis Fact Sheet
National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, 6 December 2005

Last updated: 05/15/12

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