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FDA warns public about bogus flu remedies touted on Internet

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
flu treatment, Tamiflu, Internet, fraudulent claiims, unapproved

Although this year’s flu season is past its peak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it remains high in certain parts of the nation and may continue for some time. Unfortunately, the epidemic has attracted the interest of Internet entrepreneurs who are promoting unapproved products to treat the condition.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to avoid “generic” versions of flu therapies and other unapproved products claiming they can prevent, treat or cure the flu. In addition, the FDA has sent warning letters to ten retailers allegedly selling unapproved flu remedies online. Among the products cited in the letters are “Generic Tamiflu,” which the FDA has never approved. In addition, the FDA has demanded that the retailers should remove advertising that it deems to be fraudulent claims, such as one for “the most effective alternative to the flu shot.”

In a February 15 interview, Gary Coody, the FDA’s national health-fraud coordinator, explained, “We want people to take effective preventive measures against the flu. Not only could they be getting something totally ineffective, they could have a false sense of protection.” Coody noted that some of the online retailers have already taken action. For instance, Kosher Vitamin Express, which was warned on February 11, has removed supplements such as Zahlers Kosher Abreve Advanced Cold & Flu Formula. However, www.topsavingspharmacy.com and www.sundrugstore.com, which were also warned on February 11, are still selling “Generic Tamiflu.” In addition, www.medsnoscript.com offers “Tamiflu” pills for $8 each.

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At present, generic versions of Tamiflu or another prescription flu treatment called Relenza have not received FDA approval. In addition, the agency has not approved any over-the-counter drugs to prevent or cure the flu; however, it has approved over-the-counter medicines that reduce fever, muscle aches, congestion, and other symptoms associated with the flu. Coody warns that unapproved products sold on the Internet could be counterfeit, too strong, not strong enough, or contain the wrong drug. However, to date the FDA has not received any reports of harm.

The FDA has given the online retailers 15 days to take action; if they do not comply, the agency can take legal sanctions, such as seizing the unapproved products or asking a court to bar the making of certain health claims. Coody said consumers should beware of claims for products claiming to boost the body’s immunity naturally, provide an alternative to the flu vaccine, or to shorten the duration of the flu.

The CDC notes that this flu season has been severe for children and people 65 and older. The agency recommends that high risk persons should seek care as soon as possible for flu symptoms because antiviral treatment can avert serious flu outcomes.

Infected individuals have a responsibility to reduce the risk of infecting others. A common practice in many Asian nations is the wearing of a surgical mask. That practice has not caught on in the US; however, it is a good one. It may not look “cool;” however, it can prevent you from becoming an “Influenza Mary.” The CDC offers the following recommendations for people who have come down with the flu:

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you or your child gets sick with a respiratory illness, like flu, limit contact with others as much as possible to help prevent spreading illness. Stay home (or keep your child home) for at least 24 hours after fever is gone except to seek medical care or for other necessities. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
  • If an outbreak of flu or another illness occurs, follow public health advice. This may include information about how to increase distance between people and other measures.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. This will block the spread of droplets from your mouth or nose that could contain germs.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.