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Hoax - HIV Needles Hidden Under Gas Pump Handles

Message going viral via social media claims that HIV infected needles are being placed under gas pump handles and that 16 people have already been stabbed by the needles when they tried to fill their gas tanks.

Syringe and needle filled with blood

© Martesia Bezuidenhout

Brief Analysis
The claims in the warning are false. There are no credible reports of such incidents. In fact, the message is nothing more than a revamped version of a very old hoax that began circulating in the late 1990's. Sending on this nonsense will help nobody.

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HIV Gas Pump

Detailed Analysis

According to a supposed warning message that is currently circulating rapidly via Facebook and other social media websites, HIV infected needles are being placed under gas pump handles in a deliberate campaign to prick people and infect them with the virus. The message claims that the campaign is the work of an unidentified group of criminals operating in Florida and other parts of the US East Coast. It also claims that 16 people have already been stabbed by infected needles while attempting to fill their tanks and that 10 of the 16 have now tested HIV positive.

However, the claims in the "warning" are nonsense. In fact, the message is just a revamped version of a very old hoax that has been circulating in various forms since the late 1990's.

And, there are no credible news or police reports about the incidents described. If such crimes were actually taking place, they would be widely reported by news media, not only in Florida, but also around the world. There would also be official police and health department warnings about the crimes.

Syringes are sometimes disposed of or hidden in unusual places and people sometimes do suffer needle-stick injuries as a result. However, the callous and deliberate terror campaign described in the message is NOT taking place. In Florida, or anywhere else.

One early variant of the hoax, which circulated via email, claimed to have originated from one Captain Abraham Sands of the Jacksonville, Florida Police Department. As the following example shows, the version above is just a mutated variant of this original:
My name is Captain Abraham Sands of the Jacksonville, Florida Police Department. I have been asked by state and local authorities to write this email in order to get the word out to car drivers of a very dangerous prank that is occurring in numerous states.

Some person or persons have been affixing hypodermic needles to the underside of gas pump handles. These needles appear to be infected with HIV positive blood. In the Jacksonville area alone there have been 17 cases of people being stuck by these needles over the past five months. We have verified reports of at least 12 others in various states around the country.

It is believed that these may be copycat incidents due to someone reading about the crimes or seeing them reported on the television. At this point no one has been arrested and catching the perpetrator(s) has become our top priority.

Shockingly, of the 17 people who where stuck, eight have tested HIV positive and because of the nature of the disease, the others could test positive in a couple years.

Evidently the consumers go to fill their car with gas, and when picking up the pump handle get stuck with the infected needle. IT IS IMPERATIVE TO CAREFULLY CHECK THE HANDLE of the gas pump each time you use one. LOOK AT EVERY SURFACE YOUR HAND MAY TOUCH, INCLUDING UNDER THE HANDLE.

If you do find a needle affixed to one, immediately contact your local police department so they can collect the evidence.

The original version was quickly dismissed as a hoax by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, which noted on its website:
It's a Hoax!

Tuesday, June 20, 2000 Jacksonville, Fla.     If you're inquiring about a warning from a Capt. Abraham Sands that HIV-infected hypodermic needles have been affixed to gas pump handles in Jacksonville, it's a hoax.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has had no reports of such incidents and there is no "Capt. Abraham Sands" at the JSO.

Please notify the person who emailed you that it is an email hoax.

Since then, a number of versions of the hoax set in different countries have circulated via email and, more lately via social media posts. None of the claims have ever been confirmed by police or health authorities.

Some variants have claimed that HIV infected needles have been deliberately left on theatre seats or in payphone coin returns. These stories also have no factual basis.

Back in 1999, police did report a series of incidents in which needles were left in payphone coin slots and bank night deposit slots. However, the needles were not infected with HIV or any other pathogens. The incidents were isolated to small towns in western Virginia. In all probability, they were just copycat pranks inspired by the circulated hoax emails.

In its FAQ about HIV transmission, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes:
Have people been infected with HIV from being stuck by needles in a non-health care setting?

No. While it is possible to get infected with HIV if you are stuck with a needle that is contaminated with HIV, there are no documented cases of transmission outside of a health-care setting.

CDC has received inquiries about used needles left by HIV-infected injection drug users in coin return slots of pay phones, the underside of gas pump handles, and on movie theater seats. 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 be rumors/myths.

As mentioned earlier, needles are sometimes left in place where they can potentially cause injuries. The CDC article further explains:
CDC was informed of one incident in Virginia of a needle stick from a small-gauge needle (believed to be an insulin needle) in a coin return slot of a pay phone and a needle found in a vending machine that did not cause a needle-stick injury. There was an investigation by the local police and health department and there was no report of anyone contracting an infectious disease from these needles.

Discarded needles are sometimes found in the community. These needles are believed to have been discarded by persons who use insulin or inject illicit drugs. Occasionally the public and certain workers (e.g. sanitation workers or housekeeping staff) may sustain needle-stick injuries involving inappropriately discarded needles. Needle-stick injuries can transfer blood and blood-borne pathogens (e.g., hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV), but the risk of transmission is extremely low and there are no documented cases of transmission outside of a health care setting.

Thus, this aging hoax needs to be put to rest once and for all. Sending on this message will help nobody. These false warnings do nothing more than spread fear and alarm for no good reason and add to the destructive pool of myth and misinformation that has long immersed HIV and AIDS. If you receive this hoax, do not share it with others. And take the time to let the poster know that the claims in the message are false.

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Last updated: October 9, 2013
First published: October 9, 2013
By Brett M. Christensen
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