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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 09:41 GMT
US warns bio-terror 'cure' websites
Websites have a week to stop selling unproven bio-terror treatments
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson

With anthrax spores still being discovered in Washington Congressional offices, a worried public continues to look for ways to protect themselves.

Hundreds of websites have sprung up selling everything from mail sterilisers to oregano oil to prevent and treat illnesses such as anthrax.

But now the US Government is cracking down on dozens of websites that it claims are selling unproven products to counter bio-terrorism threats.

The Federal Trade Commission has sent some 40 e-mails to the operators of such websites, telling them to stop marketing such products or face prosecution.

'Disturbing sites'

The FTC, the Food and Drug Administration, the California Department of Health Services and the offices of more than 30 state attorneys-general scoured the web for sites selling products that claimed to protect or counter biological and chemical agents.

The internet search uncovered more than 200 sites marketing bio-terrorism related products including gas masks, protective suits, mail sterilizers, biohazard test kits, homeopathic remedies and dietary supplements.

Essentially, these operators need to shut down these areas of their sites or face prosecution

Howard Beales, the Federal Trade Commission
The sites are claiming that dietary supplements such as colloidal silver, zinc mineral water, thyme and oregano oil are effective treatments for illnesses such as anthrax.

But the FTC said it was aware of no scientific proof for such claims. And John Taylor with the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Enforcement said that no products being marketed as dietary supplements had proven safe and effective in the treatment of anthrax.

"Together with the FTC, we've found quite a number of disturbing sites," Mr Taylor said. "Companies marketing unapproved or otherwise misbranded products for anthrax or other diseases run a very high risk of FDA enforcement or regulatory action."

The FTC said that opportunistic online marketers are preying on the fears of the public.

The US Government has shut down foreign websites illegally selling the antibiotic Cipro
"This marketing targets people worried about the prospect of exposure to lethal biological or chemical weapons," said Howard Beales, the FTC's Director of Consumer Protection.

And the US Government is working with state and local authorities to close down sites that are using worries over bio-terrorism to make money selling ineffective products.

Washington Attorney-General Christine Gregoire said state attorneys-general "will not stand by while website operators capitalise on public fears by selling products that offer no protection."

Buyer beware

Not all homeopathic or alternative medicine websites are trying to market alternative therapies to anthrax.

The Washington Homeopathic Products website instructs people who believe that they have been exposed to anthrax to see a licensed healthcare provider immediately.

And the president of the National Centre for Homeopathy, Todd Rowe, counselled people to avoid panic. Echoing the warnings of government officials, he said "the internet is full of books and products capitalising on this fear".

But the FTC said the public should be aware of online marketers peddling miracle treatments and cures including exotic potions and pills, special curative diets, and strange magnetic or electrical devices.

They stressed that the only known effective treatment for anthrax and smallpox are approved prescription drugs and vaccines, and they urged the public to consult their health care professional before taking any medications.

See also:

18 Nov 01 | Americas
US accused over bio-weapons deal
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Q&A: Germ warfare
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Dismay over US germ warfare stance
03 Aug 01 | Europe
Germ warfare talks suspended
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