Health Care

FDA cracks down on flu 'remedies'

WASHINGTON — A shampoo that prevents airborne virus particles that settle on the scalp from causing swine flu. Special disposable gloves that offer protection from ATMs, door handles or steering wheels that might be "contaminated" with H1N1. A "natural immunization" that purports to be a safer alternative to a flu shot.

These are among 140 drugs, devices and pieces of equipment marketed over the Internet that have landed on the FDA's list of fraudulent swine-flu-fighting products. In May, shortly after Health and Human Services officials declared swine flu a public health emergency, the FDA, in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, launched a crackdown on unapproved and unproven products.

These manufacturers "are motivated by profit, not concern for public health," said Gary Coody, the FDA's national health fraud coordinator. Health officials say they worry that use of these unproven remedies might lead people to delay seeking medical attention and endanger the health of others.

Manufacturers are being told to immediately remove unproven claims or unapproved products from their Web sites and to respond to warning letters within 48 hours, instead of the usual 15 working days. Names of the products, manufacturers and their Web addresses are posted at and will remain online, accompanied by a note indicating whether the required action has been taken. More than 90 percent of manufacturers have complied, removing suspect claims, products and sometimes entire Web sites.

A recent addition to the list is the supplement Immune Support Formula, sold by a company owned by Andrew Weil, a prominent alternative medicine physician based in Arizona. An Oct. 15 warning letter to Weil Lifestyle states that the marketing claims that the pill boosts immunity, helping to ward off swine flu, violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because the supplement has not been approved to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure the H1N1 virus.

In a statement released Oct. 16, Weil said he has ordered the claims removed from his site for review by his staff. "I fully support the FDA/FTC task force in its efforts," he wrote.

The most expensive product on the list is a $3,000 device called a "photon genie," which Coody described as a small box that is supposed to stimulate the immune system. It is still being sold, but flu-fighting claims have been removed.

The agencies are asking the public to report flu-related criminal activity or products that may be fraudulent. "We are planning ongoing, proactive and aggressive" enforcement efforts to respond to swine flu fraud, said Alyson Saben, deputy director of the FDA Office of Enforcement. Those who do not comply could face criminal charges, a court injunction and an order to repay consumers.

The list is updated regularly, and Saben said her agency plans to "focus on those Web sites that have already received warning letters and may not be in compliance." She declined to discuss specific Web sites.

One such warning went out last month to the maker of ViraBan, a hand sanitizer that, according to its Web site, protects "everyone from 99.9 percent of all germs." Until last week the site also said ViraBan was "FDA compliant."

Kevin Lilly, president of Microhealth of Mandeville, La., which makes ViraBan, said he complied with the Sept. 14 order to remove claims that the product had been "proven effective against (swine flu)." At the time, ViraBan was offering a "swine flu special — only 29.99."

He removed the claims because "we don't want to mislead people," Lilly said.