H1N1 Flu Risks Spread To The Internet

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President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring 2009 H1N1 swine flu a national emergency. As the flu spreads, federal officials have issued a warning: Don't turn to the Internet to buy products that supposedly diagnose or cure the virus. Host Liane Hansen speaks to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring 2009 H1N1 swine flu a national emergency. As the flu spreads, federal officials have issued a warning: Don't turn to the Internet to buy products that supposedly diagnose or cure the virus.

The Food and Drug Administration says consumers might not know what they're getting. The agency already has sent warning letters to more than 75 companies, telling them to stop selling fraudulent or unproven H1N1 flu treatments on the Web. Things like air sterilizers, and a gadget that sends out energy waves to strength the immune system and protective shampoos.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg is commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and she joins us in the studio. Thank you for coming in.

Dr. MARGARET HAMBURG (Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Why is the FDA so concerned about this?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, we're concerned because we want to protect people's health, and H1N1 is a serious disease. And there are things you can do to protect yourself against it, or if you are infected, to treat it. We want to make sure people get the medical care that's appropriate for them and not these fraudulent products.

HANSEN: Tell us - give us an example of a fraudulent product that you found.

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, there are many varieties out there. Some are products that claim to be legitimate drugs. For example, the anti-viral TAMIFLU, you can buy on the Web, but we tried doing it. And what we got was coming in an envelope with a postmark from India, no return address and it was tablets taped literally to pieces of paper. And they were made out of talcum powder and acetaminophen, not TAMIFLU, not something that is going to treat H1N1 infection, that's for sure.

HANSEN: We mentioned the shampoos and that energy wave gadget. What are some of the other bogus products you're seeing?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, one of my favorites was one that was a contraption that you could attach wires to your body and then it would supposedly shoot photons into you and that would kill the virus, or the air purifier that would protect you against sneezes.

Some other products may have actually been well-intentioned, products to boost your immune system, but they're still unproven and unapproved. And we want people to be aware that there are products that they can take that will help them, and they should seek those products through their health care provider. And if they have any questions they can go to flu.gov or to the FDA Web site www.fda.gov, but be very cautious about buying stuff over the Internet.

HANSEN: Do these Internet products, are the makers of them targeting any special groups?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, you know, the products are all different, but mainly I think they're targeting people who are anxious about H1N1. And sad to say, many of them are playing on people's fears and many of them are trying to make a buck.

HANSEN: Has anyone taken ill because of some of the products they've bought on the Internet?

Dr. HAMBURG: You know, I can't tell you for sure, but that's a worry and that's a big part of why we're taking action. Clearly these products are not proven to do what they claim to do to prevent transmission of the virus or be an effective treatment against the disease.

Some of them may actually be harmful because of what they contain or the lack of purity of the product. And they're harmful in any case because they may give people a false sense of protection, and they may also delay appropriate medical care and treatment.

People often want to believe that there is a miracle cure or that they can take something that's as simple as a shampoo and be protected. But, unfortunately, at least so far medical science doesn't support shampoos and power drops. I think that we have an effective and safe vaccine. People should seek that. And if you do get H1N1, most cases have been mild so far. We're lucky, but for those who get more seriously ill, seeking medical care and seeking it promptly is very important.

HANSEN: But in many areas of the country, the H1N1 vaccine is in short supply. When is it going to be available more widely?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, it has been slower than we had hoped. And the manufacturers, I think, had been optimistic about being able to get the product out of the factories and into people's arms more swiftly. But we're making progress. And the pace is picking up. And so I think that we're in a period of difficulty now where there's more demand than there is vaccine, but I think we're going to over the next few weeks see that changing.

But during this period, when people may want vaccine and can't get it, that may be when they're most vulnerable to the kinds of advertisements for fraudulent products that are appearing on the Web.

HANSEN: What should people do in the interim when they're waiting for a vaccination?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, you know, good hygiene makes a difference. First of all, people who are sick should stay home, and they should limit their contact with others. That's very important. Also, hand washing. People laugh, but it's a proven means for reducing transmission of infectious diseases. When you cough or sneeze, do so either into a Kleenex that you promptly throw away or into your arm, clothing. And generally try to exercise good sense.

HANSEN: What do you tell people who are still worried about the safety of the vaccine?

Dr. HAMBURG: Well, the best way to protect yourself against disease is vaccination, and people should recognize that this vaccine is being manufactured just like we've manufactured seasonal flu vaccine every single year. And, in fact, had H1N1, this particular strain, emerged earlier in the spring or earlier in the season, we would probably have tried to incorporate it into the seasonal flu vaccine.

That would've been a lot easier for everyone to have just one vaccine. But it's made according to the same procedures as seasonal flu vaccine. And we have a long track record of safety with that seasonal vaccine. So, people should feel very comfortable going out and seeking vaccination. And that's the best way to protect themselves in this flu season.

HANSEN: Dr. Margaret Hamburg is commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. And she joins us here in the studio. Dr. Hamburg, thanks very much.

Dr. HAMBURG: Thank you.

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