Whenever a person seeks treatment for an illness, some amount of trust is involved. You trust that the medicine you buy at the store won’t make you sick; you trust that the medical provider has your best interest at heart.
Sometimes neither of those things is true.
Increasingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is seeing purported health cures that include surprise ingredients, said Gary Coody, the agency’s national health fraud coordinator.
He said investigators have tested more than 400 weight loss and sexual performance products that contain undisclosed drugs and other chemicals.
Reumofan is one example.
The product was offered for sale on the Internet and at swap meets across the country as a natural dietary supplement to ease the symptoms of arthritis and muscle pain. But last June an FDA lab analysis found the Mexican-made product contained several prescription substances, including the corticosteroid drug dexamethasone, commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions. It also can hinder the body’s ability to fight infections and cause high blood sugar levels, bone and muscle injuries, and psychiatric problems, FDA public safety advisories warned.
Another ingredient was diclofenac sodium, linked to increased risks of heart attack and strokes, as well as ulceration and even fatal perforation of the stomach and intestines.
The FDA ordered distribution halted in the United States, and Mexican authorities also ordered a recall.
“By word of mouth, it gained quite wide distribution before we were able to step in and take action,” Coody said.
Some remain unconvinced by warnings by experts and government officials.
On an Arthritis Foundation online question-and-answer page, for instance, rheumatologist Doyt Conn warns against over-the-counter Mexican remedies. Citing his experience at the Mayo Clinic, Conn writes that he has seen side effects among people taking such products that indicate they contain cortisone.
“Cortisone is a powerful medication that can be very useful in arthritis treatment, but its use and risk of side effects have to be evaluated carefully,” Conn writes. “Taking it unknowingly, particularly in doses larger than necessary, can lead to potentially dangerous side effects.”
Writing in response, reader Rick Skillman doesn’t address Conn’s warning. He simply gives the name of a product he’s been using and says he’s been pleased with the results.
In an interview, Skillman, of San Clemente, said the remedy has so eased pain from a back injury that he’s been able to resume daily surfing.
“I thought of getting (the pills) analyzed but I’ve had no problems, and half a dozen people I know who are using it have had no problems,” he said
Rigoberto Reyes, chief of investigations at the Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs, said he often hears such justifications.
Courtesy Chris Richards
Rigoberto Reyes, chief investigations at the Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs.
“It’s one of those things where they say, ‘Hey, people have used it for many years,’” he said. “But there’s no specific scientific data.”
Some vendors appeal not to the intellect but to ostensible friendship or seemingly shared belief. That was the “affinity fraud” strategy pursued by Christine Daniel
Last month, Daniel was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for wire and mail fraud, tax evasion and witness tampering. A physician, she charged terminally ill patients from across the country thousands of dollars for what she claimed was a cancer tonic composed of exotic herbs. Authorities say Daniel siphoned about $1.1 million from 55 families.
Federal prosecutor Joseph Johns said forensic lab tests revealed the purported herbal remedy contained sunscreen, meat tenderizer and beef extract flavoring. But Daniel’s million-dollar business plan didn’t need scientific analysis. It relied on faith and hope.
“That’s one of the great tragedies of this case, that the defendant used people’s deeply held faith in God to defraud them,” Johns said. “She used victims’ faith as a weapon and a tool to gain their confidence and later to steal their money.”
Bishop Charles McKinney of St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal congregation in San Diego, believes deeply in God’s healing power. He said in 2003, when a fellow clergyman recommended Daniel’s San Fernando Valley clinic, that it seemed like a divine blessing, a chance to save his beloved wife, Jean, who was dying of intestinal cancer.
Courtesy Chris Richards
Bishop Charles McKinney of St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ.
He put his faith in Daniel, who was not only a physician but also a Pentecostal minister.
“And so she felt that it would be appropriate for us in our first visit to spend about an hour in prayer, fervent prayer that God would give us direction,” McKinney recalled.
“She was fervent, and very convincing. It did not seem to be a sham. It did not seem phony. I’ve been in many prayer meetings, including all-night prayer meetings, and here was a medical doctor who knew how to pray.”
The McKinneys went into debt to pay slightly over $100,000 for Jean’s ineffective weekly treatments. McKinney said he’s still struggling financially. But he wanted to save his wife.
She died in 2004.
Tammie Fleming quit her job in North Carolina to care for her sister, Paula Middlebrooks, as she underwent treatment for breast cancer at Daniel’s Sonrise Clinic in Mission Hills. The sisters attended Daniel’s church, too, and Tammie would pray.
“I used to beg and plead, you know, ‘Take me and not Paula,’ ” she said. “Because I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have a husband. I had a fiance. But it didn’t happen that way.”
Daniel threw a party for Middlebrooks, declaring her healed. Just the opposite was true. She died, in great pain, shortly afterwards.
Tammie Fleming learned a heartbreaking lesson.
“If someone was to come to me right this minute and say, ‘You know that they’ve got a treatment for something that I know no one else does,’ my question would be, ‘Why you? How do you have it, but no one else does?’ ” Fleming said.
McKinney said he has come to see his experience as an opportunity for the healing offered by his faith. He said at Daniel’s sentencing hearing last month, he told her he forgave her.
“I must have peace of mind,” McKinney said. “Unforgiveness on my part would poison my spiritual being, and there are physical symptoms that would result.”
He said he plans to visit Daniel in prison.
Anne Hwang, Daniel’s attorney, said she has advised her client not to comment on her case, which is pending an appeal. Hwang also declined an interview request.
Prosecutor Johns said he’s haunted by the knowledge that Daniel told some patients not to take pain medicine because it would interfere with the herbal treatments she was selling.
As troubled as he is by this case, Johns said the lesson here is the same as with other frauds: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.