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Hoax text message triggers panic in Metro

MANILA, Philippines—Sales of Betadine at a number of drugstores surged Monday and a state university suspended classes as “panic” gripped many residents of Metro Manila.

The panic buying of the antiseptic and the suspension of classes at Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) came as text messages circulated a warning that radiation from crippled nuclear plants in Japan was heading toward the Philippines.

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A text message purportedly from the BBC said Asian countries needed to take precautions from the radiation. The message advised people to remain indoors for the first 24 hours, close doors and windows, “swab neck and skin with Betadine where the thyroid area is …because radiation hits thyroid first.”

Betadine is an over-the-counter topical antiseptic made of povidone-iodine mixed in water.

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The text message also said the radiation leak may hit the Philippines starting 4 p.m. Monday.

Other rumors spreading Monday included the need to wear raincoats in case of a downpour as the skin might get burned from acid rain.

Hoax

Officials dismissed the text messages as a hoax.

An employee of a Mercury Drug branch in Ermita, Manila, who requested anonymity because it was against the company’s policy to grant media interviews, confirmed that sales of the antiseptic surged by noon.

She said she herself bought a small bottle of Betadine “just in case.”

“I already bought one for myself. It (the advisory aired over the BBC) may be true or not but we cannot be sure,” the drugstore employee said.

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She told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that other branches reported a 50-percent increase in sales.

A simple query of “Do you have Betadine?” made a pharmacy assistant in Manila immediately turn to her fellow clerks and crow, in Filipino: “See? Betadine has been selling more!”

Better safe than sorry

When prodded about this statement, Naina V. Vitero, a pharmacy assistant at Watson’s, SM Manila, said the increased sales were due to a circulating text message, which she forwarded to the Inquirer.

Vitero said the drugstore’s stock of Betadine had run out for the day, an unusual occurrence. Asked if the text message had any scientific basis, she admitted: “I don’t really know, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Safety of godchildren

An Inquirer employee said she hied off to a Mercury drugstore at the Kingswood Condominium on P. Ocampo Street (formerly Vito Cruz) to buy Betadine after she received a text message from a friend advising her to use the antiseptic.

“I got worried for the safety of my two godchildren, 7-year-old Joshua and 18-month-old Freda,” Mylene Francisco said.

She said she hopped on a tricycle and went to the nearest Mercury Drug branch.

“I searched for Betadine and there were about five of us, fellow ‘mother hens’—making a quick dash to the shelf where Betadine/Rhea (tincture of iodine) bottles were on display,” she said.

“They said that they too received the SMS text warnings and were concerned for the safety of their family, especially the children.”

Francisco said she went back to her residence and swabbed the necks of her godchildren.

PUP main campus

Students of PUP on its main campus in Sta. Mesa, Manila, were sent home at 3 p.m. Monday after its president Dante Guevarra reportedly received a text message that radioactive clouds from Japan would reach the country by 4 p.m. PUP has 35,000 students in Manila.

A PUP official said she and several others were at a meeting in the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs when they received the announcement that Guevarra had decided to suspend all classes and office activities after receiving the text.

“At first, we were surprised because the newspapers already published the news that the radiation was not likely to reach the Philippines, that it is expected to go east like in Hawaii,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

“But we were told that the instruction came from the (PUP) president. The class suspension comes at a critical period since we are on the last week of this semester and everyone is readying for the final exams,” she added.

Edna Bernabe of the university’s public affairs office said the suspension of classes at the high school and college levels on PUP campuses in Luzon and Metro Manila was imposed at around 2 p.m.

“Everyone, including the personnel and professors, went home,” Bernabe said over the phone.

Ease parents’ anxiety

In a statement, Guevarra said he ordered the suspension of classes “in order to [ease] the anxiety of hundreds of parents who were calling and asking the university about their children studying in the university.”

Guevarra, however, clarified that the decision to suspend the classes had nothing to do with the panic triggered by the supposed BBC advisory on the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant explosion.

“(This is) but a simple attention and concern on the welfare of the 65,000 students whose parents and other relatives are so anxious about,” the statement said.

Guevarra said the action was also aimed at allaying “further fear and stress” associated with the PUP’s location just across the Pandacan oil depot, “which sometimes emits toxic gases.”

The PUP administration would be issuing an advisory when classes would resume, Bernabe said.

Victor Yntig, disaster management coordinator of the education department in Central Visayas, said many parents flocked to schools early Monday afternoon because of the radiation scare.

The parents reportedly asked the teachers to dismiss their children early. With reports from Cathy Yamsuan, Kristine Felisse Mangunay and Julie M. Aurelio in Manila; and Candeze R. Mongaya, Cebu Daily News

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TAGS: Health, Mobile phones, Nuclear accidents, Safety of citizens
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