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FDA Cracks Down On Fake Ebola Cures Sold Online

Oct 23, 2014
Originally published on October 24, 2014 11:59 am

Snake venom, vitamin C, Nano Silver and herbs have all been pitched online as a treatment or cure for Ebola. None has the backing of the FDA.

"Unfortunately during public health threats such as Ebola, fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat, cure disease often appear on the market almost overnight," says Gary Coody, the FDA's national health fraud coordinator. In particular, the FDA wants consumers to beware Ebola "cures" peddled online.

The problem isn't just that such products are worthless. "Consumers who are misled by false claims may delay seeking the medical care they need, such as proper diagnosis and supportive care," Coody says. Or they may have a false sense that the product will protect them from the virus.

The FDA has sent warning letters to three companies it says are making fraudulent claims about Ebola cures. The letters threaten property seizure and even criminal prosecution if the firms don't respond appropriately.

The strategy amounts to "public shaming," says Nathan Cortez, who teaches law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It's one mechanism that the FDA uses to lean on companies in a very public way. It's also meant as a warning to other firms, he says, "to say we know companies are trying to defraud the public with fake Ebola tests and treatments and we're on the case."

Two of the firms that got the FDA warning letters didn't respond to my emailed messages. But Ralph Fucetola of the New Jersey-based company Natural Solutions Foundation says he heard the FDA's message loud and clear. Natural Solutions received the warning for its claims that a product known as Nano Silver can effectively kill Ebola.

"We understand that there is no approved treatment for Ebola," Fucetola says. "Since we are in the middle of negotiating with the government with regard to how we can best describe what we believe is a very important health breakthrough, we are not using the legal term of art 'treatment of disease.' "

Even if the company doesn't explicitly say that Nano Silver "treats" Ebola, it has claimed on its website, Twitter and Facebook that Ebola has a cure — a statement not borne out by the evidence so far, according to the FDA, CDC and other health officials.

While there are experimental drugs and vaccines being tested in the current Ebola outbreak, nothing yet has been proved to work.

Online, other companies tout clove oil, oregano and homeopathic treatments to prevent the virus. There's even a tutorial that was up on YouTube for a do-it-yourself vaccine.

Some businesses, Cortez says, take advantage of fear.

"It's like storm-chasing roofers, who go and try to defraud people after a big storm," he says. "Some of them may be making an honest mistake; other companies are trying to rip people off."

Mistake or not, the FDA says Ebola cures advertised on the Internet are misleading and dangerous. The agency encourages consumers who have seen such claims to report them.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There aren't any Ebola treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but as Lauren Silverman reports from member station KERA, there are still companies out there trying to sell us a cure. That's in air quotes, by the way.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Vitamin C, Nano Silver, herbs and snake venom all have been claimed to treat Ebola. None has the backing of the FDA.

GARY COODY: Unfortunately during public health threats such as Ebola, fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat or cure the disease often appear on the market almost overnight.

SILVERMAN: Gary Coody is the FDA's national health fraud coordinator.

COODY: Also, consumers who are misled by false claims may delay seeking the medical care they need, such as proper diagnosis and supportive care.

SILVERMAN: So the FDA has sent warning letters to three companies it says are making fraudulent claims about Ebola cures. The letters threaten property seizure and even criminal prosecution if the companies don't respond appropriately.

NATHAN CORTEZ: This is very much public shaming and it's one mechanism that FDA uses to lean on companies in a very public way.

SILVERMAN: That's Nathan Cortez. He teaches law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

CORTEZ: It's also meant as a message to other companies to say, we know companies are trying to defraud the public with fake Ebola tests and treatments and we're on the case.

SILVERMAN: Two of the companies that got the FDA warning letters didn't return emails, but Ralph Fucetola of the New Jersey-based company Natural Solutions Foundation says he heard the message loud and clear. Natural Solutions received the warning for its claims that a nutrient known as Nano Silver can effectively kill Ebola. Fucetola spoke via Skype.

RALPH FUCETOLA: We understand that there's no approved treatment for Ebola. Since we are in the middle of negotiating with the government with regard to how we can best describe what we believe is a very important health breakthrough, we are not using legal term of our treatment of disease.

SILVERMAN: The company may not say that Nano Silver treats Ebola, but it has claimed on its website, Twitter and Facebook that Ebola does have a cure. While there are experimental drugs and vaccines being tested in the current Ebola outbreak, nothing so far has been proven to work. Online, other companies tout clove oil, oregano and homeopathic treatments to prevent the virus. There's even a tutorial that was up on YouTube for a do-it-yourself Ebola vaccine. Some businesses, law professor Nathan Cortez says, know how to take advantage of fear.

CORTEZ: You know, it's like storm-chasing roofers who go and try to defraud people after a big storm. Some of them may be making an honest mistake. Other companies are trying to rip people off.

SILVERMAN: Mistake or not, the FDA says Internet Ebola cures are misleading and dangerous. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.