TORONTO — Pop a vitamin, ban doctors’ neckties, vacuum away swine flu germs and smoke an e-cigarette to ward off H1N1.
Those are just some of the suggestions making the rounds on the Internet that have health officials and experts shaking their heads.
The Web is awash with dubious advice and various flu kits for sale as H1N1 deaths continue to rise, vaccine shortages force clinics to close and officials find themselves unable to provide a hard date for when the general public can get their flu shot.
The message from experts to those tempted to buy into such schemes — don’t.
Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital, chuckles when he hears about some of the alternative remedies, including one that suggests putting onions around the house, like a farmer did with the Spanish flu in 1918, to absorb the virus.
“Well in 1918, what could you do? You had little else. Unfortunately that doesn’t make any biological sense and there’s been no scientific evidence that such a thing would actually work,” said Low.
“It sounds kind of cute and might be a little obnoxious to have to have peeled onions around the house.”
Still, questionable cures are so commonplace that Health Canada and the Competition Bureau were compelled last Wednesday to issue a warning advising people not to purchase products claiming to fight or prevent swine flu.
Health Canada said it was monitoring the Internet and would take action against Canadian websites selling unauthorized products.
The federal agency has only authorized three products — the H1N1 vaccine Arepanrix and the antiviral drugs Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir). As well, the distribution of 200,000 doses of unadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine Panvax from Australia has been authorized for use in pregnant women.
“We’re advising Canadians not to purchase unauthorized products that claim to fight or prevent H1N1 over the Internet or other sources,” said Brent Homan of Competition Bureau.
The bureau investigates health fraud and will send letters or take other steps to fight it, he added.
U.S. federal officials recently sent warning letters to promoters of more than 140 swine flu-related products, telling them to stop making false claims. It has also posted a list online that consumers can check.
There’s an amazing array of products outlined — everything from gels, inhalers and body washes to herbal extracts and tea products to air purifiers, ultraviolet devices, gloves and sprays.
Some even have the phrase “swine flu” in their name, such as the “Swine Flu… Gone” shampoo.
There’s the “Basic Pandemic Swine Flu Kit” by Quake Kare Inc. that comes with a N95 mask, four antimicrobial wipes, a pair of industrial grade gloves and antiseptic hand sanitizer gel — all packaged in a Zip-lock Bag — on sale for US$10.95, down from the regular price of US$15.95.
Or you can upgrade to the deluxe kit which adds safety goggles, hooded coveralls, plastic sheeting and duct tape for $39.95.
Despite the company website’s claim to the contrary, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the kit is not approved to fight H1N1.
“There’s always going to be opportunists,” said Low, who worries Canadians might opt for unapproved products, seeing them as another excuse not to get a flu shot.
“It’s giving false hope where people are going to get the feeling that they can protect themselves and their family and that they don’t need a vaccine,” he said.
For the record, Low — who is also head of the public health laboratories with the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion — has had the flu shot himself, as he is in a high-risk group, and he said he had no adverse effects.
He recommends checking out reliable websites of the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Health, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and CIDRAP for flu advice.
What about air purifiers or masks touted on the web to fight H1N1? There’s no evidence air purifiers reduce H1N1 transmission, Low said.
N95 masks flew off the shelves during the 2003 SARS crisis and Low said they were proven to protect against airborne transmission of viruses. If infected patients wear surgical masks, which are less effective, he said they wouldn’t be able to cough onto susceptible people or surfaces.
But Low said he hasn’t seen any reports that airborne transmission is a major route for H1N1, so he thinks masks are of little benefit in general against the swine flu.
Zinc works for upper respiratory tract infections and Vitamin D helps treat tuberculosis, but neither fights swine flu, said Low. As for Vitamin C to fight H1N1? Forget about it, he said.
Don’t sweat it over your doctor’s germy necktie either, because swine flu won’t jump from the tie onto patients.
A claim on a press release this week states that “E cigarettes may be more effective than swine flu vaccine” because one of their ingredients, propylene glycol, may be a powerful deterrent against influenza. It cites a 1942 study to back it up. But Low just shakes his head.
“What people will stoop to. There’s good evidence that smoking is a risk factor for people to get influenza,” Low said.
What does work? The Public Health Agency of Canada advises you to wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, or use hand sanitizer, cough and sneeze into your arm or sleeve, stay home when sick and get the flu shot.