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Online Health Scams Promise AIDS Cure, Elixirs

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday May 4, 2011
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The government is launching an effort to counteract bogus online remedies that purport to cure a range of ailments, from herpes to HIV.

Fake cures are nothing new in the world of commerce. History is littered with poultices, elixirs, and potions that have made extraordinary claims about banishing disease and enhancing health. So-called "cure-alls" from the days of the wild west, known as snake oil, have lent their collective name as a contemporary term for a useless concoction that promises to restore health and vigor, but which does little more than lighten the wallets of those whose hopes are cruelly bolstered.

But the rise of the Internet, with its wide reach and its virtual marketplace opportunities, has brought snake oil health scams to a new level--and it’s not only a fraud, it’s a danger to public health.

A May 3 AFP article reported that the United States government is set to do something about it. The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have created a plan to work together to fight the online sale of modern-day snake oil cures with high-tech names like Viruxo, Medavir, and C-Cure. The new initiative was announced on May 3.

The government action targets so-called "cures" for sexually transmitted infections

The US government said Tuesday it is taking steps to remove from the market a host of online products that promise to cure HIV, herpes, chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, the article said.

"These products are dangerous because they are targeted to patients with serious conditions, where treatment options proven to be safe and effective are available," said the FDA’s Deborah Autor.

One serious problem in the arena of public health is how many people infected with HIV and other STIs do not know their health status, and unknowingly put others at risk of contracting HIV, chlamydia, the human papilloma virus, syphilis, and other afflictions. For those who do learn of their health status, fake "cures" could supplant legitimate medical treatment and mislead people into thinking that they no longer carry sexually infectious diseases.

"Consumers who buy these products may not seek the medical attention they need and could spread infections to sexual partners," said Autor.

The products that the FDA and Federal Trade Commission have targeted are made and distributed by 11 companies. Though much of the sales volume takes place online, some of the products are also sold at retail operations in the real world, the article noted.

"When it comes to health products, the Internet can be a toxic wasteland for consumers," the FTC’s Richard Cleland told the AFP. "We have reviewed the claims on the websites and we find them to be extremely problematic."

The ingredients are often unlikely, but the claims are extravagant. "One Texas-based company promotes a product called ’oil of oregano’ on its website and lists AIDS, anthrax, genital herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis among its ’uses,’ " the AFP article said.

Folksy-sounding remedies like the beet juice and garlic potion touted by former South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang may couple the comfort of familiar-sounding ingredients with claims of miraculous curative potential, but the practical effect can be anything but therapeutic. One study on South Africa’s former health policies--which included not only promoting the beet juice cure, but also denying that AIDS was caused by HIV--estimated that over 300,000 lives were needlessly lost because such baseless claims displaced fact-based, medically sound treatments.

In the U.S., marketing sound bites threaten to outcompete the complexities of authentic medical expertise, the AFP article noted.

"Just say ’No!’ to expensive prescription drugs and risky herpes treatments," one website encourages readers, the AFP article says. "I can finally say I no longer have herpes," the same site offers, as a testimonial.

Such claims are attractive, but they are without merit. The AFP article reported that herpes cannot be cured. There are legitimate medical treatments available, however, that can help alleviate and abbreviate herpes outbreaks.

The FDA said that the 11 companies in question were sent letters from the FDA and the FTC "warning that their products violate federal law." Those companies have about two weeks to clean up their act. If they do not, they could be subject to "legal action, including seizure and injunction, or criminal prosecution," the text of the letters warned.

"It is unlawful... to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made," the text added.

Some products making health claims are labeled as supplements, the article noted, but that does not shield the companies that produce or distribute them if there is also a claim that the product combats illness.

"The joint action is the first step in keeping these unproven items from being sold to the public and preventing consumers from being misled," the FDA stated.

"These illegal products could pose significant health risks," said the FDA’s Howard Sklamberg. "Consumers and health professionals should know that there are simply no over-the-counter or online drugs or supplements available to treat or prevent STDs."

Vermont Public Radio offered advice for consumers tempted by claims of curative properties, but uncertain about the medical usefulness of products. "Here’s a simple rule of thumb for picking a medicine to treat a sexually transmitted disease: If it’s available without a prescription, move on," the May 3 posting said.

The VPR website also posted a video in which the FDA’s Dr. Debbie Birnkrant summarized the situation. "These products won’t work, and they could hurt you," Birnkrant said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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