"The key here is consumers need to beware," says FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard.
The Internet has opened up a new world for Americans seeking better health from the convenience of their computers. Patients can email their doctor, read top medical journals for the latest advice, or have their doctor fax a prescription to a legitimate online drugstore that ships medicine refills monthly.
But the Internet also is a hot spot for virtual back-alley drug sales where legitimate online drugstores face stiff competition from Web sites that don't require genuine prescriptions for legal U.S. drugs or that even sell illegal ones that could be deadly.
The FDA hopes next week to begin operating a $100,000 computer system designed to help unveil illegitimate sites. Domestically, if states can't shut down a bad site, the FDA says it will use federal authority to do so.
Last month, the FDA stopped sales of two unapproved AIDS tests, got names and addresses of the Web sites' customers, and began writing them to say don't trust the tests' accuracy.
If you recently bought an at-home AIDS test called EZ Med over the Internet, expect a letter from the government urging you not to use it. That AIDS test is illegal and, worse, studies show it can't detect the deadly AIDS virus as it claims. The FDA is also investigating sales of the unapproved HIV test called Ana-Sal from the HIVCybermall Web site.
Some Web sites lure customers by not requiring a prescription. Others provide consumer questionnaires that a staff doctor supposedly reads to decide whether the consumer truly should get the drug.
But it's illegal to sell certain U.S. drugs without a valid prescription, defined under federal law as written by a doctor with a relationship with the patient. Plus, it is illegal for doctors to prescribe for patients in a state where they're not licensed to practice.
For a year, states have been struggling to enforce those laws, revoking some doctors' licenses and suing to shut down illegitimate Web sites.
Going around a doctor's appointment and prescription can be deadly. A 53-year-old Chicago man who ordered the impotence pill Viagra over the Internet died, apparently because he had heart disease risks that make the drug dangerous.
Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., is sponsoring legislation to force online pharmacies to disclose who actually sells the drugs and where they're licensed to practice, just as a neighborhood pharmacy posts its license in the store, to help consumers and state regulators know who they're dealing with.
But everybody acknowledges the steps will do little to curb foreign Web sites, which ship everything from tranquilizers to steroids in unmarked packages that can slip past U.S. Customs. "Congress needs to step in there," Hubbard says.
In te meantime, consumers are being warned to protect themselves by:
- Reading the Web site's fine print to see if the online pharmacy is licensed in your state.
- Remember the importance of valid prescriptions.
- Be wary of terms like "miracle cure" or "secret remedy."
The Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging people to use the federal consumer health information gateway at www.healthfinder.gov as a reliable resource. The FDA and the FTC have their own sites, www.fda.gov, and www.ftc.gov that consumers can search for additional information.