AIDS-Infected Needles: Urban Legend?

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The skies got a little scarier this week when passengers aboard several Delta flights from Europe found needles in their turkey sandwiches. One man suffered a minor injury, and one of the biggest concerns now is that the needles were somehow infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another disease.

According to an Associated Press story,

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Passenger Jim Tonjes said Tuesday he was high above North America when he bit into a hot turkey sandwich aboard a Delta flight and felt a sudden jab in his mouth. At first, he thought a toothpick meant to hold the sandwich together had punctured the roof of his mouth. When he pulled it out, "it was a straight needle, about one inch long, with sharp points on both ends." Now Tonjes is on a 28-day course of pills aimed at warding off any infection, including hepatitis or HIV. His doctors have asked the FBI to tell them right away if they find any residue on the needle.

An investigation has been launched into the company that provided the food, Gate Gourmet, and no follow-up cases have been reported. Many are wondering: Could this be a new front in terrorism?

AIDS Urban Legends

Fear over malicious AIDS infection has been around for decades, often in the form of the "AIDS Mary" urban legend which told of an attractive woman who seduces a man and gives him AIDS — and those techniques were used in warfare: "Prototypes of the modern legend in the 19th century described a vengeful woman spreading a venereal disease among her country's enemy forces," wrote folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends."

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Brunvand notes that "AIDS researchers are unanimous in asserting that this specific event never occurred, although certainly some people have tried to give the AIDS virus to others.

In the early 2000s, urban legend stories of AIDS-infected needles circulated widely, prompting the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control to issue a statement:

CDC has received inquiries about a variety of reports or warnings about used needles left by HIV-infected injection drug users in coin return slots of pay phones and movie theater seats. These reports and warnings are being circulated on the Internet and by email and fax. Some reports have falsely indicated that CDC "confirmed" the presence of HIV in the needles. CDC has not tested such needles nor has CDC confirmed the presence or absence of HIV in any sample related to these rumors. The majority of these reports and warnings appear to have no foundation in fact…. CDC is not aware of any cases where HIV has been transmitted by a needle-stick injury outside a health care setting.

So far no one knows why the needles were placed in the Delta food. Was it a hoax? A prank? An act of sabotage by a disgruntled Gate Gourmet employee? Or a dry run to test airline security?

How Real is the Threat?

Though airlines and the Transportation Safety Administration must treat each threat as serious, an organized terrorist threat is among the least likely explanations. For one thing, the needles were easily detected; out of the six turkey sandwiches that apparently had needles in them, five were discovered before causing injury, and the sixth poked a tiny hole in the passenger's mouth that didn't require medical attention — unnerving though it may be.

Furthermore, putting a pathogen such as HIV on one or more of the needles (especially solid needles, as these are reported to be) is very unlikely to succeed. This is because HIV cannot exist intact for long outside the body; in fact it is rendered inert shortly after contact with air. Thus even if someone got ahold of a quantity of AIDS-infected blood (or even the HIV) and put it on needles (or anything else that might get into another person's bloodstream) to put in airline food, the virus would likely be dead long before the plane took off. Furthermore the flight attendants heated up the sandwiches in ovens before serving them, thus greatly increasing the chance of killing harmful bacteria and viruses.

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It would be much easier and more effective to simply poison the food; there are many toxic pastes and sprays that could be surreptitiously used by a food worker intent on doing harm instead of using one-inch needles very likely to be discovered before any damage is done.

Food contamination is scary and a real health threat, but as a mechanism for transmitting AIDS and other diseases, needles in food are an incredibly unlikely weapon.

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