Quack Products Prey on Ebola Fears

August 17, 2014

News about the spread of the deadly Ebola virus is concerning, yes. Even as our hearts go out to victims, we need to keep everything in perspective to avoid being mislead by marketers (and the media generally) preying on hyped-up fearmongering. The current death toll (mid-August) from Ebola is about 1,200, but influenza is the cause for 250,000-500,000 deaths every year, according to the WHO. In the United States over a half-million people die of cancer every year and almost the same from heart disease according to the CDC. So while Ebola is bad, many more diseases are far worse.

BBB experience shows that bogus health products and unproven claims crop up when there’s a high level of fear about a disease. BBB files are full of examples. In the 1950s, one promoter offered an “Atomotrone” device to make “irradiated water” at home to cure “irregular heart action, blood clot in the brain, tumors, etc.” He was convicted of mail fraud after BBB showed the device was just a box with colored lights.

Now, preying on fears of Ebola, offers are turning up for “unapproved and fraudulent products” to prevent or treat Ebola, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). An alert issued on August 14, 2014, states: “FDA has seen and received consumer complaints about a variety of products claiming to either prevent the Ebola virus or treat the infection.”

Despite these claims, FDA states, “There are currently no FDA-approved vaccines or drugs to prevent or treat Ebola … There are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products specifically for purchase on the Internet.”

What about the experimental vaccines that have been in the news? “These investigational products are in the early stages of product development, have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness, and the supply is very limited,” FDA says.

Consumers are also warned against any claims that a dietary supplement could help prevent or treat Ebola. According to FDA, “By law, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or cure disease.”

The truth is, Ebola does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. public. But it’s just when fear is high that unproven, fraudulent products appear.

FDA is monitoring for bogus products and false claims, and will take appropriate action if claims aren’t corrected or removed. Consumers who have seen fraudulent products or false claims relating to Ebola can report them to FDA, and can also inform BBB.

BBB and FDA offer these tips to recognize fraudulent health products. Be wary of these red flags:

  • One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases. No one product could be effective against a long, varied list of conditions or diseases.
  • Personal testimonials. Success stories are easy to make up and are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
  • Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products.
  • “All natural.” Some plants found in nature (such as poisonous mushrooms) can kill when consumed. Numerous “all natural” products contain hidden, untested, or dangerous ingredients.
  • “Miracle cure.” If a real cure for a serious disease were discovered, it would be widely reported through the news media and prescribed by health professionals—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials or on Internet sites.
  • Conspiracy theories. These statements are used to distract consumers from the obvious, common-sense questions about the so-called miracle cure.

If you’re tempted to buy a product touting questionable claims, check with your doctor or other health care professional first.

BBB is a non-profit organization that promotes truth in advertising by investigating questionable advertising claims, and asks advertisers to voluntarily substantiate, modify or discontinue those claims when appropriate. Most advertisers cooperate with BBB and adhere to the guidelines in the BBB Code of Advertising. To report an ad that may be false or misleading, email it to: info@HamptonRoadsBBB.org.