There's nothing new about companies capitalizing on fear. For every health scare, there's a bogus cure, and for every existing illness there are a ton of supplements and sham products purported to treat or prevent it. Yet there’s something particularly sinister about promoting products that can "prevent" or "treat" Ebola — an infectious disease that has killed over 1,000 people in regions of Africa since December. Still, that doesn’t appear to have stopped anyone, as evidenced by a fake Ebola treatment named "Garcinia Cambogia powder" that's currently being sold online.
The stuff you're seeing online is total crap
"We’ve seen everything from dietary supplements to essential oils," said Erica Jefferson, a spokesperson for the FDA, in an email to The Verge. "The types of products range." Because of a recent rise in fake Ebola treatments and preventatives, the FDA issued a warning yesterday reminding consumers that the real drugs currently being used to treat a very small number of people around the world are "experimental" and have "not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness." Moreover, the supply of these experimental treatments "is very limited," the FDA wrote in their warning. "By law, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or cure disease."
In other words: the stuff you’re seeing online is total crap.
So far, Jefferson said, the FDA has received a "handful of complaints from consumers" about various anti-Ebola drugs and supplements. So The Verge decided to get in touch with one of the companies that sells Garcinia Cambogia powder.
"I’m going to give you the simplest answer and the best answer: what you see on the website is specifically traditional uses that this food, herb, or substance has been used for, for thousands of years from its native country," says Michael, a Z Natural Foods customer service representative who refused to give his last name. "We don’t sell products that specifically make a claim to treat Ebola."
Z Natural Foods, IMNatural, and Moutainside Medical Equipment
Until yesterday, Z Natural Foods promoted the powder by stating that "some possible benefits of the raw Garcinia Cambogia powder may include… fighting intestinal worms, parasites, and Ebola virus." This description, however, was altered drastically after our call.
Here’s a screenshot of what appeared on their website yesterday:
And here’s what’s on their website today:
Michael defends his company’s product by stating that they "have never gotten a phone call of someone buying it for Ebola, parasites, or worms. People only buy it through us for weight loss," he says, adding later, "I’m a little uncomfortable from this."
Here’s another example from a similar company, IMNatural, with an almost identical description to the one Z Natural Foods boasted less than 24 hours ago:
IMNatural could not be reached for comment.
"These products are all scams," said Robert Siegel, an immunologist at Stanford University, in an email to The Verge. "There are no studies of the efficacy of these products, so any claim about them is a lie perpetrated by people who wish to profit from other people’s fears." Unfortunately, "many people are gullible and will believe anything," he said, and companies like Z Natural Foods and IMNatural know how it.
But there’s more to this trend than fake anti-ebola natural health products. Mountainside Medical Equipment, a company that appears to be based out of New York, has pioneered the $20 "Ebola Virus Protection Kit."
"protect yourself and your family from the deadly Ebola virus outbreak."
According to the company's website, this nifty assemblage of disinfectant spray, gloves, and isolation shoe covers will help you "protect yourself and your family from the deadly Ebola virus outbreak." And if their products are any good, this might actually have some degree of truth, as gloves and masks are indeed recommended for medical professionals who work with Ebola patients. But given that the risk of Ebola spreading in the US is extremely low, the marketing of this product is nothing more than an attempt to take advantage of the paranoid and misinformed.
Beyond how distasteful these product descriptions are, there's this simple truth: where there’s fear, there’s money to be made. It’s a scenario that’s so typical, it borders on the banal. But that doesn’t mean it should go on.