The U.S. government ordered 48 Web sites last week to quit promoting bogus ways to prevent and treat SARS, the travellers` nightmare, as health officials urged Americans to beware of quacks preying on their fears.
Internet sites are illegally claiming that dietary supplements from vitamin C and oregano oil to colloidal silver and belladonna can treat or cure the new respiratory illness, regulators charged. Others promise SARS “protection kits” that include personal air purifiers, gloves, masks and alcohol wipes.
“Scam artists follow the headlines, trying to make a fast buck with products that play off the news,” said Howard Beales of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which conducted the crackdown along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Many of the products also were advertised as anthrax defences during the 2001 bioterrorist attack, and the government cracked down then, too.
Consumers don`t stand just to waste money - some of the bogus treatments could cause side-effects. Belladonna, for instance, is a poisonous plant; small amounts of its alkaloids are used to make certain prescription medications. Colloidal silver can turn the skin blue.
Scammers frequently claim certain dietary supplements treat serious diseases by boosting the immune system, claims that are bunk, said FDA commissioner Mark McClellan.
Among companies targeted was Texas-based Young Again Nutrients, whose Web site still claimed on Friday that its beta glucan “strengthens the immune system defences against all infectious viral diseases, and possibly SARS.”
The FDA earlier this year seized $500,000 of different Young Again products on another charge. The company did not return a call seeking comment.
Companies that don`t cease illegal marketing could have their products seized and be subject to prosecution and thousands of dollars in fines, the government said.
Scientists have found no effective treatment for SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that has infected more than 7,000 people worldwide and killed 515 since erupting in China. In Canada, 23 people in the Toronto area have died.
The United States so far has escaped much illness, with just 63 probable cases of the new disease and no deaths. All but two have been among travellers to China or other countries hit hard by SARS; the remaining two were a health worker and relative infected by a traveller.
Specialists recommend masks and other protective gear only for people in close contact with suspected patients.
“Common-sense actions” protect the average person, McClellan said: If you`ve had contact with a traveller to a SARS-hit area and develop symptoms, consult a doctor. Avoid travel to SARS hot spots. Wash hands frequently, as colds and other viruses can be transmitted by touching something in the path of a sneeze and then touching your own face.
And be savvy, health officials advised: if scientists were to discover a SARS treatment, would you really hear about it through an Internet sales pitch instead of the news?