Sierra Leone: Outbreak of Mysterious Blisters Is Case Study in Spread of Panic
An outbreak of mysterious blisters in Sierra Leone illustrates how panic can be stirred by a combination of overwrought journalism, listless government and traditional witchcraft.
The Inquirer, a Sierra Leone news site cited on ProMed, an epidemic-alert service, reported that “the wild spread of the contagious skin disease” was taking over a rural county, with 75 people affected. It quoted local residents blaming polluted water, “poisonous bacteria” or “contamination of the underground,” and said a government minister had “warned people with the disease to cease all movement.”
In fact, a careful reading of the article suggested that local doctors had identified a plausible cause and suggested a sensible solution. But that point was obscured by the purple “Fear Grips City” prose.
The blisters, the doctors said, were from “Nairobi flies,” and their advice was to just blow them off, not slap them. The “Nairobi fly” is actually a red-and-black beetle of the genus Paederus that is found from India to West Africa but hatches only rarely. It does not bite, but contains pederin, a stinging acid, to drive off predators. Smacking it on the skin releases the acid, which can leave a nasty welt; touching an eye with the acid can blind it for days. The condition is, of course, not contagious.
While this brouhaha may seem minor, others have had serious consequences. Nigeria’spolio vaccination drive, for example, was derailed by journalists spreading rumors that the vaccine was a plot to sterilize Muslim girls; polio then spread from Nigeria to more than a dozen other countries.
Here's a picture: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/health/30global.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y