There have been many fearful claims concerning bananas. In fact, bananas, due to their exotic origin, had a rocky reception in the U.S., stoking fears and myths, not the least of which was that bananas are hard to digest or undigestable. But perhaps the scariest rumor about bananas was much more recent, that they could give you necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria.
Beginning in 1999 via chain-emails, a warning claiming to have come from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began circulating. This urgent warning claimed that a large shipment of bananas from Costa Rica were infected with flesh-eating bacteria. The message urged everyone to avoid buying and eating bananas for several months, at the risk of contracting necrotizing fasciitis.
The original email message reads as follows.
Please forward to everyone you love!! This is VALIDATED FROM THE CDC. (centers 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. Recently this disease has decimated the monkey population in Costa Rica. We are just learning that the disease has been able to graft itself to the skin of fruits in the region, most notably the Banana which is Costa Rica’s largest export.
Until this finding scientist were not sure how the infection was being transmitted. It is advised not to purchase Bananas for the next three weeks as this is the period of time for which bananas that have been shipped to the US with the possibility of carrying this disease. If you have eaten a banana in the last 2-3 days and come down with a fever followed by a skin infection seek “Medical Attention”!!!
The FDA has been reluctant to issue a country wide warning because of fear nationwide panic. They have secretly admitted they feel upwards of 15,000 Americans will be affected by this but that these are acceptable numbers.
Please forward this to as many people you care about as possible as we do not feel 15,000 people is an acceptable number.
Manheim Research Institute
Centers for Disease Control
Note that the mistakes in the message have been preserved from the original warnings and are not typos or mistakes in transcription. Also, note how the beginning of the message does not seem to correspond to the closing. The message reads as if someone is reporting something that the government knows about and that the CDC “has validated.” It even goes on to disagree with the FDA’s decision that “15,000 people infected” is acceptable. Yet, the closing makes it appear as if the message actually originated from the CDC. This should have been enough to dissuade anyone from taking it seriously.
Here is another hint: The Manheim Research Institute does not exist. Late versions of the message left out Manheim and just listed the CDC or used major U.S. universities as the source.
It is true that there was an outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis in the city of Cartago, Costa Rica in the summer of 1999, but there was never any link to bananas, or monkeys, which were also mentioned in the message. The message also instructed people, if they noticed signs of the infection, to burn their skin to halt its progress before seeing a doctor. No message from the CDC or any medical professional would ever advise people burn their own skin!
In fact, bananas cannot be “infected” with flesh-eating bacteria as “necrotizing fasciitis” is caused by bacteria, mostly streptococcus, that already live on our skin or in our bodies. To put things in perspective, these infections can be caused by the same bacteria that cause strep throat. So, as you can see, there is more to it than some scary bacteria floating around out there waiting to consume our flesh. In the United States, there are several million yearly cases of strep throat and impetigo, a skin infection caused by streptococcus. But there are only about 1000 cases of necrotizing fasciitis. Other types of bacteria are sometimes involved, as well.
Sometimes these bacteria can invade a wound (although it may rarely appear de novo) and cause a severe infection that destroys the connective tissue underneath the skin. There is no such thing as a type of bacteria that is “flesh-eating bacteria.” That term was invented by British tabloids in the early 1990’s. These severe and spreading infections have always been around, but the problem now is antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Also, many times there are predisposing factors like immuno-compromise of some kind. Snopes has a write-up of this urban myth and for more on the flesh-eating bacteria scare see 50 Health Scares That Fizzled by Joan R. Callahan.
The CDC, FDA, and the International Banana Association released statements denouncing this hoax. According to the CDC:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Infectious Diseases states that the current email rumor circulating about Costa Rican bananas causing the disease ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ is false.
We have not heard any reports of cases of necrotizing fasciitis associated with bananas. There is no evidence that necrotizing fasciitis is transmitted by food. The bacteria which commonly cause necrotizing fasciitis live in the human body. The usual route of transmission for these bacteria is from person to person.
It should go without saying that there is no reason to believe that these bacteria would ever “graft themselves” onto a banana skin.
Much later, in 2011, a similar message went out claiming the same thing about bananas from South Africa.
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