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Washington Journal: Commission Seeks To Provide Consumers With Reliable Information

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - In the United States alone, more than 20 million people look to the Internet for information about health. U.S. officials believe that some of that health information is fraudulent, and a report on a new government crackdown on schemers in cyberspace leads off this edition of the RFE/RL Health Report.

US Takes Aim at Internet Health Frauds

Washington - The U.S. Federal Trade Commission this week announced the start of what it calls a comprehensive law enforcement and consumer education campaign to stop health fraud on the Internet.

The agency calls the campaign "Operation Cure-All." It says the campaign will make use of the Internet both as a law enforcement tool to stop false claims for products and treatments packaged as cures for various diseases and as a communication tool to provide consumers with good quality health information.

Jodie Bernstein, director of the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection, explains why the campaign is needed:

"As of December in 1998, 23 million adults in this country looked for health and medical information online. That's an astonishing number. Seventy percent of those looking for health information on the Web did so before they saw a doctor. Most online consumers search for information about diseases, and about one in four of them join an online support group."

She said Operation Cure-All is the result of an investigation of health and health-related Internet sites by the commission. Staffers looked at Internet sites for a full day in 1997 and again last year and evaluated the information that was presented.

Bernstein said: "Our survey of the web sites found that too many make deceptive, unproven and fraudulent claims. Miracle cures, once thought to be laughed out of existence, have found a new medium. Consumers now spend millions on unproven, deceptively marketed products on the Web."

Bernstein said the Internet has real value as a health information resource, but she also said the government cannot take it for granted that all those who offer health products and information are honest.

"We've seen the value of the Internet and we're going to continue to promote the value of the Internet's ability to provide truthful information. But, where information on websites is deceptive and untruthful, consumers are at risk."

Bernstein also said the investigation resulted in the imposition of restrictions on four Internet-based companies that allegedly made false health claims. She said the firms settled charges that the four web sites made deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims offering "miracle cures" for serious illnesses: cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and liver disease. The companies will be prohibited from making such claims in the future and could face more severe penalties if they violate their pledges.

The curbs were necessary, said Bernstein, because:

"Sites touting unproven remedies for very serious diseases -- cancer, heart disease, HIV and AIDS, and particularly arthritis are absolutely exploding on the Web."

She said consumers must be provided with reliable resources "so that they can use the Internet to find the support and health care information they need." Bernstein also noted that the U.S. government supports several Internet sites that provide health information. She said these include sites prepared by the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences, among others.

Dr. Mary Jo Deering, director of health communication at the Department of Health and Human Services, said:

"We really think that the Web presents wonderful opportunities to reach people with an important wealth of health information. Information that can help them stay well, cope with disease, navigate the health system, none of which is easy to do when you have to do it on your own."

US Doctors Agree to Form Union

Chicago - Members of the American Medical Association (AMA) have approved the formation of a doctors' union to bargain with the increasingly powerful private health insurance industry in the United States. Leaders of the American Medical Association say the national labor union they are forming for doctors will give them back the autonomy that managed-care companies are taking away.

The AMA's 494-member House of Delegates voted on Wednesday to endorse the formation of a labor association to give the medical profession more strength in dealing with health insurers.

However, the action affects only about six percent of the estimated 600,000 practicing physicians in the U.S. That is because U.S. law prohibits doctors who are not employees from forming unions in the traditional sense. Self-employed doctors would not be covered by the AMA's vote unless the U.S. Congress approves pending legislation that gives them collective-bargaining rights.

The AMA vote was actually more along the lines of a formal ratification by the organization of a trend that has been developing for some time. Doctors who work full-time for health maintenance organizations or hospitals already can unionize, and have been doing so at an increasing rate. There are an estimated 38,000 to 45,000 doctors who have joined unions, up from about 25,000 two years ago.

Dr. Randolph Smoak, chairman of the AMA board of trustees, assured the public that, "doctors will not strike or endanger patient care." He said physicians "will follow the principles of medical ethics every step of the way."

Health insurance companies condemned the vote. A number of industry experts predicted higher costs for all consumers. Chip Kahn, president of the Health Insurance Association of America, said the move could add two million people to the list of the uninsured and push premiums up by more than 10 percent.

Gene That Causes Dementia May Give Clues to Alzheimer's Disease

Washington - The U.S. National Institutes of Health say researchers supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) have discovered a novel gene, which when mutated is responsible for familial British dementia (FBD). That is a rare inherited disease that causes progressive dementia like that seen in patients with Alzheimer's disease and severe movement disorders. The researchers say this finding provides an exciting new clue to abnormal changes in the brain that lead to dementia.

FBD was first reported in the 1940s. This disorder has since been described in a large British family of more than 300 members spanning 9 generations. The most common symptoms of this disease - which usually develops in patients in their 40s and 50s - are dementia and spasticity. A distinct feature of FBD is the development of Alzheimer's disease-like dementia instead of stroke.

Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine, in collaboration with scientists at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Institute of Neurology in London, discovered the gene. The scientists identified the mutated gene in a female FBD family member, who developed the disease at age 56 and died at age 65. They also found the mutation in seven affected FBD family members, but not in unaffected family members.

The researchers say they are excited by the findings because it provides another window into the diseases of the brain associated with Alzheimer's.

Overweight Children, Adolescents At-risk for Cardiovascular Problems

Washington - The June issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says a study of overweight children and adolescents in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana indicates that over half of overweight children and adolescents in the study had at least one additional risk factor for cardiovascular health problems.

The analysis is based upon seven studies conducted between 1973 and 1994 by the Bogalusa Heart Study in Louisiana. It included more than 9,100 children between five and 17-years-old. The main finding of the analysis was that 58 percent of the overweight school children were found to have at least one additional cardiovascular risk factor. Twenty percent of the overweight children and adolescents had two or more additional cardiovascular risk factors. Risk factors are conditions that increase the odds of developing a disease.

The Louisiana research said the boys and girls in the study were, in addition to being too heavy, more likely to have either high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or some other indicator of heart disease.