By AL GUART
Warning: Browsing the Internet for medical information could be hazardous to your health - and possibly fatal.
The 'Net is bustling with Web sites that offer medically unproven treatments and cures for a slew of serious diseases.
The Federal Trade Commission has identified 800 sites and news groups with "questionable promotions for products or services" purporting to cure, treat or prevent heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Internet sites, replete with convincing testimonials, tout "psychic surgery" for almost any ailment, a rocket-fuel chemical as a cure for cancer, highly toxic herbs to treat liver disease, and magnets for those suffering from ulcers or dementia.
A number of patients around the nation reportedly have died or suffered life-threatening setbacks after dabbling in alternative cures hawked in cyberspace.
Linda Malone, of Fort Worth, Texas, had a cancerous tumor removed from her breast in September 1997, and, fearing chemotherapy as a follow-up treatment, turned to the Internet.
Typing in the words "breast cancer," she found numerous sites promoting hydrazine sulfate, a compound used in making rocket fuel.
They "made it sound like it was a miracle cure for cancer," Malone, 58, said. "It was supposed to kill any cancerous tumors that might try to appear."
During the three years she took the chemical under the care of a local naturopath, the cancer returned to her breast and spread to her liver.
She was given less than a year to live when she checked into a hospital Sept. 25, and is now undergoingchemotherapy.
Malone warned anyone cruising the Web for medical information to confirm what they find with a reputable medical doctor.
An unidentified 55-year-old Hawaiian man reportedly died of liver and kidney failure after taking hydrazine sulfate - obtained online without a prescription - to treat his sinus cancer, according to doctors at the Moncrief Army Community Hospital in Fort Jackson, S.C.
In 1997, the journal of the American Medical Association reported that a patient died of kidney failure after taking "oil of wormwood" obtained online.
Many cases in which patients are harmed by using treatments found online are believed to go unreported because the victims are embarrassed. But medical experts say such incidents are likely to increase with the number of people using the Internet and as the number of health-related sites swells to meet the demand.
As of December 1999, 34.7 million Americans sought medical advice on the Internet, a 56 percent jump over the previous year, according to the FTC.
Meanwhile, health-oriented Web sites jumped from 2.8 million to 9.5 million between 1998 and 2000, one study found.
Sites offering medical advice and treatment openly hawk herbs and dietary supplements in what is now a $15 billion-a-year industry.
The FTC has targeted a handful of sites that hawk miracle cures and products, forcing them to stop making unfounded claims.
In April, the FTC settled fraud charges with two sites that pushed the chemical CMO (cetylmyristoleate), at $65 per bottle, to treat arthritis, cancer and asthma, and a third site that sold bottles of Essiac herbal tea, at $14.50 per bottle, as a cancer and AIDS cure.
Among the questionable
and potentially hazardous products and treatments touted on the Web are:
Studies have shown the toxic herb has caused kidney cancer and failure in scores of cases.
There are sites that, with no apparent scientific evidence, link breast cancer to underarm deodorants, warn that Costa Rican bananas carry a flesh-eating bacteria, contend that cooking in aluminum pans causes Alzheimer's disease, and claim that ingesting the artificial sweetener aspartame leads to multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus.
An AIDS Web site, originating in the Netherlands, cites the work of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and other scientists in insisting that there is no proof the HIV virus causes the disease, that AIDS is not sexually transmitted and that victims are poisoned to death by antiviral drugs.
Even sites operated by well-respected institutions and medical schools contain misinformation, studies have found.
A 1999 University of Michigan study found a Web site operated by the Encyclopedia Britannica that claimed a cancer that afflicts children had a 95 percent mortality rate. In fact, the survival rate is 75 percent. The error was later corrected.
Ohio State pediatric specialists found that 48 of 60 sites run by major medical institutions contained inaccurate information on how to treat childhood diarrhea.
Dr. Gerald Bernstein of Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan said he's had his share of misinformed diabetes patients asking about unproven treatments.
"What the Internet
should do is provide patients with a basis to be better informed for when
they see a professional," Bernstein said. "It should not lead you to be
your own diagnostician."