A Possible Bioterror Follow-up To 9/11 Was Actually Seasonal Dry Skin
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was an intense fear of additional terrorist attacks against the United States. Chemical weapons were a particular concern, because countries like Iraq were famously just full of 'em. So in late 2001, when parents in 27 states started noticing rashes on their kids, they came to a very logical conclusion: biological warfare.
At any other time, the CDC probably would have laughed their concerns off. But the 2001 anthrax attacks had also just happened and, in one case, the seven-month-old son of an ABC producer tested positive for anthrax after visiting dad at the office. The symptom that tipped off his parents was a rash.
Rashes were reported all over the bodies of students, and they lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Was Al-Qaeda following up their destruction of a symbol of American power by irritating midwestern teenagers? Eventually, the CDC reached a conclusion: a heightened fear of terrorism made parents and teachers hyperaware of any kind of skin problem. Some of the cases could be chalked up to a minor virus called fifth disease, other kids were suffering from dry skin caused by winter weather or overheated classrooms, and some clever little bastards started rubbing themselves with sandpaper to get out of school. A few cases were likely psychogenic and, when schools started taking minor rashes less seriously, those rashes stopped spreading. Devastated students needed a whole day to think of a different excuse to get out of class.
1899's Kissing Bug Epidemic Gave Us Fake Bug Attacks And Bad Poetry
On June 20, 1899, the Washington Post published a story about the bite of a strange new bug. Victims would wake up with "both eyes nearly closed by the swelling." Then, fever and poison-like symptoms would appear. No one had seen the bug; it only attacked at night, and the bite itself was painless. But, after a few weeks, the bug had caused deaths. In one case, the death certificate specifically stated the cause as "sting of a kissing bug."
Between June and July there were more than sixty newspaper articles about the bites. Then it jumped from a disease to a full-blown trend. People wore bug images on jewelry, it appeared in political cartoons, and kissing bug encounters were used as legal defenses. It was so big that someone wrote a goofy poem about the insect in the middle of an ostensible epidemic.
"Swift, with undiscerning glee
Through the land he goes,
Kissing one upon the lips
Or the chin or nose...
Some of us well know they worth,
Some of us who but for thee,
Never would be kissed."
Remember, as far as anyone knew this was a deadly disease. It would be like writing a cutesy ode to the coronavirus or tuberculosis (oh wait, people did that too). And as the bug's fame grew, so did the bullshit stories. One "victim" claimed the bug that attacked him had "a head like a rat and two long fangs." Another said it was six inches long, like no one had heard that claim before.
It soon became obvious that exaggerations were rampant, and in August a doctor wrote a New York Times article arguing that the epidemic was mostly manufactured. Mysterious bites had been turned into horror stories, making people worry that bites from mosquitoes or other harmless bugs would be deadly.