An email hoax circulating since January 2000 which claims that bananas imported from Costa Rica carry the deadly "flesh-eating disease" necrotizing fasciitis continues to incite fear among Internet users. Health officials, universities, and media outlets say they've been flooded with panicked inquiries.
Kathy Means, vice-president of the Produce Marketing Association, says the hoax has spread faster than the flu. "We've been dealing with it at least a month," she told USA Today last week. "It just keeps coming back up."
Despite the best efforts of officials and media sources to debunk the misinformation, new variants keep appearing and twisting the facts even further.
Here's a timeline of events:
Jan. 28: CDC debunks 'false Internet report'
In response to the first appearance of the hoax, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, released this statement:
"False Internet report about necrotizing fasciitis associated with bananas: The bacteria which most commonly cause necrotizing fasciitis frequently live in the human body. The usual route of transmission for these bacteria is from person to person. Sometimes, they can be transmitted in foods, but this would be an unlikely cause for necrotizing fasciitis. FDA and CDC agree that the bacteria cannot survive long on the surface of a banana."
Feb. 5: Variant of hoax referencing the CDC appears
Barely a week after the CDC denounced the rumor as false, a new version appears claiming the CDC has "validated" it (reproduced verbatim):
Subject: CDC WARNINGFeb. 11: International Banana Association blasts 'Internet terrorism'
Please forward to everyone you love!!
The is VALIDATED FROM THE CDC.
(center for disease control in atlanta georgia)
Several shipments of bananas from Costa Rica have
been infected with necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise
known as flesh eating bacteria....
The International Banana Association issues a press release stating that the rumor "has no scientific or medical basis." According to IBA vice president Tim Debus, "There is absolutely no truth to the rumor about infected bananas. It is just another case of Internet terrorism like the recent hacker attacks on popular Websites." (However, no evidence is offered in support of the implication that this was an intentional attack on the banana industry.)
Meanwhile, another variant has appeared. Earlier versions bore the name of the nonexistent "Manheim Research Institute" at the bottom of the message, but that has now been revised to read:
Manheim Research InstituteFeb. 16: LA Times reports on banana hoax
Center for Disease Control
A story in the Los Angeles Times notes that an employee at the University of California at Riverside was one of the earliest forwarders of the email rumor, and as happens more frequently than not during the life of an Internet rumor her authoritative-sounding signature "stuck" on the email, lending it unwarranted credibility and causing the university to be deluged with inquiries from every part of the world.
"The university has no connection to this e-mail except perhaps through one employee who disseminated it," a spokesperson told the Times
By this time variants of the hoax are now circulating which not only contain the hapless UC employee's signature, but the following introduction added by person(s) unknown:
Warning from UC Riverside College of Natural and Agricultural SciencesFeb. 19: CDC creates 'Banana Hotline'
The Knight Ridder news service reports that the Centers for Disease Control, "indundated with calls" about the banana hoax, has set up a special hotline for consumers to call for reassurance.
Regarding the "Manheim Research Institute," a spokesperson said "there is no such division" of the CDC.
Feb. 22: Variant of hoax referencing the LA Times appears
Less than a week after the LA Times pronounced the rumor a hoax, a new version is sighted which begins:
...this was in the LA Times. I won't be eating bananas!
This mail is for those of us in USA. It is a matter of
serious concern. Don't eat Bananas for 4 weeks from now.
PLEASE READ the forwarded message!!!!!
As of this writing, the hoax, its credibility strengthened by ongoing modifications including the addition of false authentications, continues to circle the globe, modem by modem by modem.