An Urban Legend Come to Life?

Needle-Stick Incidents in Bangkok and Maryland

Needle stick attack
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In July 1999, police in Bangkok hunted for a man accused of stabbing several women in the back with a needle and shouting "You've got AIDS now!" in separate incidents over a period of days.

It wasn't known whether the needle used in the attacks was actually contaminated with HIV. According to Agence France-Presse coverage, Bangkok health authorities said there was less than a one-percent chance that any of the victims could have been infected this way.

Only two months earlier, a similar incident was reported in Towson, Maryland. A woman checking the oil in her vehicle at a service station was approached by a panhandler who allegedly stabbed her with a needle and said "Welcome to reality, you have HIV." The man was arrested, but it wasn't immediately known if he had the AIDS virus himself.

Copycat attacks?

Following the Maryland attack, a TV news report ventured an explanation as to why the incident sounded so familiar to many people: "Warnings of similar attacks with HIV tainted needles have been circulating on the Internet," it said. "Patrons at this gas station were shocked to learn, what sounded like an Internet hoax could happen here."

What they read on the Internet wouldn't have been a hoax, precisely, but it certainly qualified as an urban legend.

The Internet warnings were based on word-of-mouth rumors circulating since the late 1990s.

They described random needle-stick attacks allegedly perpetrated in darkened public places -- movie theaters or night clubs, for example -- by unseen assailants who left behind a calling card saying "Welcome to the world of AIDS" or "Welcome to the HIV club." These stories were actually false, so far as authorities were able to determine, but clearly the people who spread them believed them to be true.

Facts vs. folklore

The similarities between the real-life incidents reported in Bangkok and Maryland and the urban legends that foreshadowed them are too close for comfort -- right down to the chilling punchline. They do, in a general way, comprise a "legend come to life." But it's important to note the dissimilarities, too. Most importantly, the real-life attackers did not attack in secret and hide their identities. They assaulted their victims face-to-face, in broad daylight. It is claimed in Internet rumors that people have contracted AIDS as a result of such attacks. We don't yet know the fates of the real-life victims, but doctors say the likelihood of their being infected in this way is remote.

It's crucial to maintain the distinction between what is fact and what is folklore because, while it's accurate to say there is a grain of truth to the legends, it's simply false to assert that the recent incidents "prove them true." The perpetrators of the subsequent crimes were copycats, merely imitating the same stories we'd all already heard (as a matter of fact, tall tales about HIV exposures culminating in the punchline "Welcome to the world of AIDS" date back at least 10 years).

This means that people who circulate email warnings about sneak attacks with contaminated needles in movie theaters and night clubs are spreading falsehoods and frightening people needlessly.

They may think they're being helpful by sounding an alarm, but it does no one any good to confuse reality with fiction by making the threat seem more dire and pervasive than it actually is.

Sometimes the truth is scary enough, as is.