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The Swine: Dangerous Flu Scams Proliferate

Watch out for fake cures for swine flu.

As flu season gets into full swing, con artists are peddling an increasing number of fake--and sometimes dangerous--drugs that purport to cure or prevent H1N1 to a population increasingly nervous about getting sick.

The Food and Drug Administration recently ordered a bunch of these advertised remedies from a proliferation of Internet sites that promised prevention or cures. Several sites advertising Tamiflu--a costly, but effective treatment for Swine flu--sent out bogus products.

One of the orders, which arrived in an unmarked envelope postmarked in India, contained tablets made up of talc and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), according to the FDA. Others contained some of the active ingredients in Tamiflu, but not in the same proportions as prescribed treatments. Few of the web sites required a prescription.

"Medicines purchased from Web sites operating outside the law put consumers at increased risk due to a higher potential that the products will be counterfeit, impure, contaminated, or have too little or too much of the active ingredient," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.

That boosts the risk that you'll suffer side effects from inappropriate use of prescription medications or dangerous drug interactions. There's also a chance that you'll get contaminated drugs, containing impure or unknown ingredients, she added.

In reality, your best chance at preventing Swine flu is to follow grandma's advice:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Drink plenty of liquids (ideally hot liquids).
  • Keep your fingers away from your face.
  • Gargle with warm salt water once a day to kill bacteria.
  • Blow your nose, and, perhaps, swab it daily with a Q-tip dipped in warm salt water.
Why are these things helpful? The points of entry for a virus are your eyes, nose and mouth, said Dr. Donna Barsky, pharmacist with Texas Star Pharmacy in Plano, Tx. Because bacteria can get on your hands when you touch things--from doorknobs to drinking fountains--that were handled by sick people before you, your chance of getting sick is closely correlated to how much you touch you face and how often you wash your hands.

Warm salt water kills bacteria, but briefly. Hot liquids wash the bacteria into your digestive tract, where the chemical stew in your stomach can kill the germs before they spread.

Barksy also recommends that you carry a hand sanitizer and use it, particularly if you spend a lot of time in crowded public places. If you're unusually vulnerable or nervous in areas where you're in close quarters with a crowd, wear a surgical mask, she said. Both of these prevention moves are cheap and easy.

The symptoms for Swine flue are a high fever--usually 103 to 104--listlessness, muscle aches and a severe headache. If you have those symptoms, get to a doctor, she said. They'll test for the virus and can prescribe treatment if the test is positive. If you get treated in the first 48 hours, your chance of kicking the virus in less than five days is good, she added.

Typically, doctors are prescribing Tamiflu, she added, but it has side-effects that make it important that you have medical supervision if you take it. The real deal (as opposed to the fakes being peddled online) is also expensive. Barsky says that a 25-ml dose costs about $65 for someone without insurance. Those who do have insurance are finding that their coverage varies widely, with some companies covering the treatment in full and others demanding large co-payments.

Whatever you do, don't order drugs from untested Internet sites, the FDA warns. Unless you have a lab, you're not going to know what's in the package. That's dangerous to both your health and your wealth.

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