Officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning people to be wary of products being sold online that claim to treat or cure the Ebola virus. Although there aren’t any approved drugs for Ebola — which has claimed more than 1,000 lives in several West African countries, in what has been declared an international health emergency — the FDA has been alerted to some online supplements that are claiming to help treat the deadly disease.
“Individuals promoting these unapproved and fraudulent products must take immediate action to correct or remove these claims or face potential FDA action,” the agency said in a statement posted on its website on Thursday. “It is important to note that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. public. Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure a disease all too often appear on the market.”
During the current Ebola outbreak, there’s been some confusion over what types of treatment are available. Although no drugs have yet been approved or endorsed by regulatory agencies, there are several experimental treatments that have been tested in animals. When three Europeans contracted Ebola while abroad, they were given one of those untested drugs to help them fight the virus, sparking criticism that they were unfairly receiving more medical resources than West Africans.
“The population here is asking: ‘You said there was no cure for Ebola, but the Americans are curing it?’” the Liberian health minister told press last week. Since then, the World Health Organization has sanctioned the use of experimental drugs in the ongoing outbreak, and people in Nigeria and Liberia have started receiving some.
Even outside of Ebola, the FDA has its work cut out for it cracking down on illegal online pharmacies selling products that haven’t been approved for sale in the U.S. Every year, federal officials shut down more than a thousand websites selling potentially counterfeit drugs from other countries. According to the FDA, Americans should be wary of online pharmacies that offer steep discounts on drugs or don’t require a doctor’s prescription.
This is an issue that particularly plagues impoverished countries home to people who may be desperate for affordable treatment, where an estimated 25 percent of the medicines sold are counterfeit or substandard. According to a 2011 report, falsified drugs have flowed into more than 120 countries. “We have a rampant problem with malaria medications, tuberculosis medications and others, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and we know it’s increasing,” Lawrence Gostin, the chair of the Institute of Medicine, the organization that prepared the report, said at a panel where the results were presented.
It’s not uncommon for scams to pop up in the midst of tragedies. Earlier this summer, after a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine, killing the hundreds of people on board, it wasn’t long before the family members of the victims were hit with Facebook and credit card scams.