Pathetic journalism – when media thought you can get STDs from ATMs

In a s̶e̶l̶f̶ destructive attempt to malign a government initiative, the Indian media has once again unmasked their own “illiteracy” (can we still call it a mask after the million holes put in it by OpIndia?) and spread panic and rumour in the process. I am referring to some of the reports in the media, which claimed that ATMs may cause STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases)!

I first broke into laughter. It soon turned into horror as I wondered what exactly these media people were doing to those ATMs to get STDs! And how?! Ewww!

But worse, there still are people who believe the mainstream media, trusting them with veracity of information.

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But I don’t trust them. So I looked at the source of this stupid news item. They all seemed to have picked it up from a news service IANS, but the ‘STD spreading’ headlines were the work of horror by our their own editorial teams. India Today even went so far as to link it to the “note ban”. Economic Times also linked it indirectly, but they didn’t put STD in the headline.

ATM STD news by India Today
Sensationalism or plain stupidity?

First, the facts:

These news reports quote a research to back their sensationalist headlines. The research quoted was conducted in New York by a biologist. What the media understood from the research was that ATMs are potential source of STI causing pathogens. The spin is that the pathogens are present on ATMs.

But this micro-habitat is also present on any other object that is commonly used by public; for example, door of a cab, bus, metro railings, office desk and even toilet seat at your home.

Yet, how often are we visiting venereologists after coming in contact with these objects? These pathogens can cause anything as small as common cold to grave illness like Tuberculosis. But the chances of contracting STD are negligible.

What is an STI? Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are spread primarily through person-to-person “sexual” contact. I am still wondering how the i̶n̶t̶e̶l̶l̶e̶c̶t̶u̶a̶l̶s̶ of our society are having fun with Automated Teller Machine that they are fearing about getting STD?

The truth is that the microbes mentioned in the news reports are the ones that are frequently present either as normal flora of our body or are result of unclean hands (something that is not the result of demonetization, at least).

News article says that microbial communities extracted from the ATMs in New York were those found in food, environment, residual DNA from meals, Lactobacillus (which is usually found in decomposing plants or milk products). As far as basic science is concerned, you can be assured that none of them can cause STI.

Study quoted in article also agrees that “the most common identified sources of microbes on the keypads were from household surfaces such as televisions, restrooms, kitchens and pillows, as well as from bony fish, mollusks and chicken.”

So aren’t we struggling with more risk in our own cosy beds than those shabby ATMs?

So how exactly did the media convince the ATMs to spread STDs?

According to the news, “the research team found a parasite typically seen in the gut of humans, along with a species closely related to the human parasite Trichomonas Vaginalis (TV), which can potentially cause STD.”

Now, the question is that how a species “closely related” to TV became TV itself and started causing STDs? Is it the new sci-fi parasite? It is like saying that anopheles which is a malarial vector, can also cause zika or dengue just because it is also a mosquito. But that never happens and so similar parasite cannot become TV and cause STD.

More importantly, when I went through the original research, I found that they could not confirm the presence of TV. Researchers in original article said that they were not able to differentiate Trichomonas vaginalis from closely related zoonotic species using 18S rRNA loci alone and in their study they could not confirm the likely source of eukaryotic pathogen species.

The other time they mentioned about TV where they said that it is from avian (birds) source: “A species closely related to the human parasite Trichomonas vaginalis that was originally isolated from avian sources were also recovered from ATM keypads.”

From this we can infer two things:

1. The researchers could not confirm the presence of pathogen that can cause STI.
2. The tumult created by media headlines was alarmist and gloom-mongering.

But you can’t expect the media to be responsible enough to go into the details of research reports before spreading rumours and panic. Indian media will conveniently blame the agencies they source the news from. But remember, the headlines are all theirs.

When they see something that sounds too strange to be true, you would expect them to crosscheck with some experts. But, they see STD and ATM in one report and were more than happy to run them with alarmist headlines, especially at a time when people are thronging ATMs, with some even linking it to the “note ban”.

Now you know, that it is actually the media that is spreading STD (Stupidly Through Discourse?) rather than the ATMs.


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