(CP) — The power of the Internet rumour mill slammed up against a hospital in Rimouski, Que., on Wednesday, leaving doctors and administrators bewildered by claims they were treating a boy gravely ill with H5N1 avian flu.
If he had existed, the nine-year-old with pneumonia would have been North America’s first human case of H5N1 flu. It also would have ignited continental concern over how a child could have come in contact with a virus not yet found in North America.
If he had existed.
“This is totally untrue. There is no case of respiratory illness in any children right now in the hospital. No cases at all,” said Dr. Patrick Dolce, head of microbiology for the hospital in Rimouski, called the Centre de sante et services sociaux de Rimouski-Neigette.
The hospital is the only one in Rimouski, a city of about 42,000 people located 325 kilometres or three hours drive up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City.
Dolce added that when he raised the rumours with a colleague, the infectious disease specialist on duty Wednesday, “she laughed at me.”
Rumours appear to have been circulating for a couple of days among people who avidly scan the Internet for signs the H5N1 virus might be making the leap from a bird virus that occasionally infects and kills people to a human virus setting off a global wave of infection.
The rumours found a home at Recombinomics.com, a website run by former cancer researcher Henry Niman, one of the most avid of flu watchers.
Niman, a prodigious poster, has a large and loyal Internet following. He also has a track record of sounding alarms – in April 2005, for instance, news of several clusters of human cases in Vietnam led him to declare “the flu pandemic of 2005 has clearly begun.”
Niman, who lives in Pittsburgh, wrote an item for his website saying several independent sources were reporting a child in hospital in Rimouski was sick with H5N1 disease. Word of the rumour was e-mailed to several news organizations in Quebec, though not, it would appear, by Niman.
Suddenly the Rimouski hospital was getting calls from a man identifying himself as a physician from Italy and from news organizations. “We had a call from the New York Times,” said an amazed Dolce.
In an interview, Niman said he heard the rumour from two independent sources he trusted. Later, he called back to say he believed he might have been the victim of a hoax, saying the first call he took appeared to be from someone impersonating a person he knew.
The bloggers who write the respected public health website Effect Measure were also approached with the rumour, but chose not to run with it.
One of the anonymous bloggers – they go by the name Revere – said the decision was based on years of experience in public health.
“The first thing you learn to do is verify the diagnosis,” the blogger said from Boston. (The Reveres take their name from Paul Revere.)
“One of the things that I’ve decided is that it never hurts to wait a little bit to see how things shake out. If you’re just a rumour copy machine, you’re not doing anybody any good.”
The amplification of rumour speaks to the concern that exists in the blogosphere, where untold numbers of people all over the world scan blogs and news websites looking for the latest on H5N1.
“There are people who follow this obsessively … who have a special sensitivity about the threat of a pandemic starting,” Revere said.
In the era of the World Wide Web, sorting fact from fantasy can be tough when concern runs high and one website looks as reputable as the next, said Peter Sandman, a leading risk communications expert based in Princeton, N.J.
“Everybody who knows HTML now has equal access to the world,” Sandman said.
He defended the contribution of rumours to public health, saying they play a key role in bringing to light disease outbreaks by countries that might wish to cover them up.
“WHO relies enormously on rumours as its early warning system,” Sandman said.
“Long before a government tells the World Health Organization that something has happened the rumour mill tell the World Health Organization that something might have happened.”
But he suggested sites that go out early with rumours should make that clear, and should correct themselves if the rumour turns out to be false.
By late afternoon, Niman had pulled his Rimouski posting, replacing it with one that said he had been unable to confirm the existence of a case there.
Copyright © 2006 by Canadian Press