A long-standing urban legend claims that needles laced with the HIV virus have been left in inconspicuous locations such as movie theater seats, payphones, and on gas pump handles with the purpose of infecting unsuspecting victims. These rumors have circulated for more than a decade and today we’ll take a closer look at them.
While there have been needle prick reports in the news, there have been no reports of randomly-placed needles infecting a person with HIV.
Below we’ll go over a few variants of the story.
HIV needles in payphones (or other vending coin slots)
This variant of the rumor states that needles have been placed in the coin slots of payphones in order to prick a victim as they reach for change. We have found variants of the “HIV needles in payphones” rumor going back to at least the late 1990s. As payphones have almost completely disappeared from the landscape of America, this variant now usually mentions vending machine coin slots instead of payphones. Below is one version that was passed around as a warning via email in the late 90s:
A weird story crossed my desk and thought I’d pass it along.
A friend-of-a-friend is currently going through EMT class and they’ve been warned (told) to be very careful reaching into any slot for return change. I guess the latest “thing” is placing used hypodermic needles into change-return slots, causing people to get pricked when they reach in for their change. These needles are showing up primarily at public pay phones, but obviously it could spread easily and quickly (e.g. stamp machines, vending machines, etc).
Please be careful. Thanks for your attention.
HIV needles on theater seats
This rumor was also circulated back in the late 1990s via email. Its proliferation gained such momentum that it was reported in several newspapers around the country in April 1999. The rumor was reported to have no truth to it at the time, despite local CDC offices being flooded with calls from concerned citizens.
HIV needles under gas pumps
The most recent of the three variants of the HIV needle rumor is that of HIV-laced needles hidden under gas pump handles. We first wrote of it in early 2013, when the graphic shown here was circulating on social media. The message read:
HIV/AIDS Needles hidden under gas pumps
In Florida and other places on the East Coast a group of poeple are putting HIV/AIDS infected and filled needles underneath gas pump handles, so when someone reaches to pick it up and put gas in their car, they get stabbed with it. 16 people have been a victim of this crime so far and 10 tested HIV positive. Instead of posting that stupid crap about how your love life will suck for years to come of you don’t re-post, post this. It’s important to inform people, even if you don’t drive, a family member might, and what if they were next? CHECK UNDER THE HANDLE
The CDC directly addressed this rumor on its website, where it is stated:
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.
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.
True Needle Pricks
The warnings being circulated differ from real needle prick stories that are often reported in the press. In most real needle prick cases, the pricks were the result of an accident and don’t appear to have been left randomly under the circumstances outlined above. Here are a few examples of real needle prick stories over the years. Note that none of them happened in the manner being warned about above:
- May 1989 – A man pricked an officer with a needle while being arrested in New York.
- July 1990 – Prison officer Geoffrey Pierce was attacked by an HIV-infected prisoner, who used a syringe of his own blood. Pierce was infected with HIV and died 7 years later.
- April 1995 – A two-year old boy was pricked while playing in a hospital.
- December 2009 – A man injected his own blood into his wife, infecting her with HIV, in hopes of resuming sexual activity with her.
- October 2010 – A three-year old was potentially exposed to HIV when she reached into a medical waste container containing used needles.
- December 2011 – Two women were pricked with needles while trying clothes on in a Wal Mart.
- March 2012 – A prison guard was pricked by an HIV-infected needle after picking up a piece of paper containing the needle.
- August 2012 – A man in China was pricked by a needle containing HIV antibodies left in a cab
- October 2012 – A teen pricked several classmates with a glucose meter.
- September 2014 – A Seattle tourist was reportedly stuck in the arm by an anonymous woman who said “Welcome to the HIV club.” There have been no follow-up reports to this story. See a news report on this incident below.
There have also been a few instances over the years involving a criminal using what they claimed to be an HIV-infected needle as a robbery weapon (Example). Again, this differs from randomly-placed needles as the warnings above state.
Chance of Infection from a Needle Prick
According to Merck: A health care worker who is accidentally pricked with an HIV-contaminated needle has about a 1 in 300 chance of contracting HIV. The risk increases if the needle penetrates deeply or if the needle contains HIV-contaminated blood (as with a needle used to draw blood) rather than simply being coated with blood (as with a needle used to inject a drug or stitch a cut). Infected fluid splashing into the mouth or eyes has less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of causing infection. Taking a combination of antiretroviral drugs as soon after exposure as possible appears to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of becoming infected from an accident in a health care setting and is recommended.
It has been estimated that approximately 58 health care workers had contracted HIV from needle pricks through 2014, with another 150 “possible” cases. This, however, is only a fraction of the estimated 800,000 accidental needle pricks that occur in medical settings each year.
In February 2015, a graphic repeating a variation of HIV urban legend resurfaced on social media. This variation includes a student who was stuck with a needle and a note which “welcomed” them to the “HIV world.”
The variant above repeats many of the elements of the common urban legend, notably an anonymous needle prick with the intention of infecting the victim. New elements included in the story are the setting of a student at a marketplace, and the injection apparently happening directly from another person. While the story does not include a timeline, it should be noted that it takes 3 to 6 months to detect HIV infection, although the narrative above seems to indicate that the student immediately sought testing.
There is no evidence that the story above ever happened.
The rumor of anonymous HIV needle pricks, in any of its incarnations, is untrue and there is no evidence that these warnings are based on actual news reports or events. Needle pricks do occur, but they are usually the result of an accident rather than being randomly planted in an attempt to harm an innocent victim. While the warnings above are theoretically possible, they do not appear to be based on any real events. The closest true report of an anonymous HIV attack is probably the September 2014 incident in Seattle, but a lack in follow-up reporting leaves the outcome of that case unclear.
The only known HIV syringe attack which led to infection is that of the prisoner attack on Geoffrey Pearce back in 1990.
Updated November 2, 2015
Originally posted January 2013