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The Supplement Industry Descends on Sickened Africa—Again

From drinking salt water to silver nanoparticles, it's fake medicine open season.

by Michael Byrne
Aug 16 2014, 5:55pm

Image: ronstik/Shutterstock

For those who still imagine the supplement industry as some benevolent alternative to Big Pharma, behold: American vitamin peddlers are being warned against making continued claims of their products' efficacy in treating/curing the Ebola virus. These warnings come courtesy of the United States' FDA and the WHO and, so far, are only warnings, with the promise of real-life penalties if firms continue pushing dishonest and dangerous marketing campaigns. "Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure a disease all too often appear on the market," the FDA warming reads. "By law, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or cure disease."

Of particular concern is a product called NanoSilver, sold by the Natural Solutions Foundation. The product is basically a solution of tiny silver particles, and purports to be something of a cure-all for infections of any stripe. Silver has demonstrated antimicrobal properties and, in the hands of the supplement industry, this can only mean that it treats whatever disease is handy. And while indeed silver is effective in surface antibiotic applications—as a disinfectant coating for medical devices, or a antimicrobal protectant utilized around public spaces—it is also fairly toxic to humans. And despite the howling chorus of natural heath boosters (just Google "silver particles cure") the concept hasn't really been shown to cure or treat anything once it's inside the human body.

Nonetheless, Rima E. Laibow, Natural Solutions Foundation's "medical director," sent a letter to a bunch of African health officials. "There is good reason to believe that there already is a natural solution for, and prevention against, the terrifying novel Ebola virus for which, at this point, no effective treatment or counter measures are thought to exist," she wrote. Laibow goes on to repeat the usual bullshit about silver nanoparticles being a cure for really anything, from Ebola to HIV. It stuck in at least one crucial place.

The New York Times reports:

Nigeria's health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said an unidentified Nigerian scientist living overseas had arranged for Nigeria to get a different experimental medicine, according to Nigerian news outlets. They identified it as NanoSilver, a supplement offered by the Natural Solutions Foundation, which said that it contains microscopic silver particles, although, as a food supplement, it is not tested by regulatory agencies. Silver kills some microbes on surfaces and in wounds, but it can be toxic and is not F.D.A.-approved for systemic use against viruses.

After the Times attempted to contact Laibow about her products' claims, a pair of NanoSilver-boosting websites went dark, featuring redirects to a different product called Silver Solution. At least one other supplement is boosting anti-Ebola properties, Monolaurin, and a rumor is spreading that drinking salt water will do the trick, to dangerous effect. At least two Nigerians have died from downing large amounts of salt.

The whole thing has echos of the too-often forgotten Matthias Rath reign of quackery in South Africa in the mid-00s. Rath had been an outspoken antagonist of HIV suppression therapies, convincing many that antiretriviral therapies are themselves toxic, a destructive weapon against humans wielded by a malevolent pharma industry. He had an alternative in mind, of course: vitamins. With significant aid from the South African government, Rath conducted a propaganda campaign with the aim of convincing HIV-positive patients to give up their medications and join his study, where they would be taking vitamins instead. Many thousands of people did, and a great many of them likely died as a direct result.

The whole episode was nothing short of monstrous and Rath was eventually barred from continuing his "research" and from making any more bogus claims. It's worth reading Ben Goldacre's account of the episode—and Rath's attempts to silence that account—for the Guardian, which also released a short documentary on the whole horrific mess. (Beware: it's a fully skin-crawling experience.)

Unfortunately, unlike Rath's war on HIV medication, there is no Ebola treatment to go to war against. It's much easier to talk fearful people into something when the alternative is nothing. The Raths of the world might even view the current situation as ideal, an open doorway for spreading junk medicine on poorly educated populations at their most vulnerable.