Closer to home, charitable organizations dedicated to facilitating and funding organ transplants are concerned that tales of black marketeering may be at least partially responsible for a reduction in the ranks of volunteer donors, resulting in needless deaths among seriously ill patients awaiting transplants.
Contagion is an apt metaphor here. Tracing the spread of this pernicious rumor and the fear that it engenders, we see that acts as a sort of mind-virus, adapting to new environments as it jumps from host to host — even reaching epidemic proportions when conditions are right.
This way of looking at the propagation of urban legends comes from the discipline of memetics, which investigates the properties of "memes," or "units of cultural transmission." Other examples of memes are songs, ideas, fashions and commercial slogans. Think of cultures as "meme pools" — comparable to the "gene pools" discussed in biological evolution — and think of memes as informational entities that replicate and evolve in order to survive.
One thing the longevity of the kidney theft tale makes clear is that a meme need not be true to be fit for survival. What it must — and in this case, certainly does — have are traits that consistently induce one host to communicate the meme to another. One such trait is its ability, like a good ghost story, to spark a visceral tingle of fear in the listener. This is probably, in fact, among the strongest characteristics a meme can have; for fear induces stress, and one way we as human beings attempt to cope with stress is by distributing it among our peers. On the darker side, there is undeniably a sensation of power to be had by successfully provoking fear in others. Some people actually take a perverse pleasure in it.
The best remedy is accurate information
Someone, we don't know who, initiated the cavalcade of faxes, emails and phone calls in early 1997 that caused panic among prospective travelers to New Orleans. It's hard to imagine what the rumormonger's motivation was, if not to share a feeling of panic. In succeeding, he or she induced others to do the same. An epidemic was born.
The best remedy was, and is, accurate information. But remember, viruses adapt in order to survive, and this one has proven to be especially flexible and resilient. We can expect a new strain to show up in due time, in a brand-new environment in which it can flourish and with some compelling new twist to keep it fresh. We can't predict where it will happen, nor can we do much to prevent it. The best we can do, we "epidemiologists of culture," is watch and learn, and share what we know. The rest is up to the vagaries of human nature, and the natural selection of memes.