The website for MedaVir, a drug claiming to "stop herpes outbreaks," features a generic photo of a man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope slung around his neck. Next to him, there's an endorsement of the product: "MedaVir is the only treatment that works. That is why I continue to recommend it to all of my patients with herpes." The quote -- which ignores Famvir, Valtrex, and other FDA-approved herpes drugs -- is attributed simply to "Licensed Medical Doctor/Gynecologist, Florida." Why, thanks for weighing in with your medical expertise, Dr. Licensed Medical Doctor/Gynecologist!
Advertisements for dubious treatments for STDs -- especially herpes -- are abundant online, and the FDA has taken note. Today the regulatory agency announced that it's cracking down on some of the most outrageous examples, including C-Cure, Herpaflor, Medavir, Never An Outbreak and Viruxo. The companies were warned that their products "violate federal law" and have been given 15 days to comply. Of course, there are unproven "cures" targeting just about every condition under the sun, but this particular sliver of the market comes with an unrivaled mix of embarrassment and despair, and some companies are all too happy to exploit that.
The MedaVir site tells visitors, "Herpes outbreaks can make you feel isolated, even hopeless." The Never An Outbreak website sympathizes, "Painful, irritating, embarrassing. We understand the devastating effect cold sores and genital herpes can have on you. It doesn't have to be that way anymore." Elizabeth Boskey, a sexual health expert who has warned about the dangers of these types of sites in the past, told me, "They are basically preying on people who are desperate and willing to spend anything on something that will help them."
Going to the doctor to have those bumps or sores checked can be humiliating. The diagnosis may come with a legitimate prescription, but it also brings a heavy dose of stigma. What a huge relief to stumble across someone promising a cure that can be shipped discreetly via the Internet! Boskey points out, "People think, 'There has to be a cure!' They hope that, well, maybe [the product] just hasn't gone through the regulatory process yet." Even rationally minded skeptics can fall prey to the promise of a secret miracle cure when they're up against all that shame and pain.
These sites often highlight ingredients in their product that are FDA-approved -- which may be reassuring on the face of it, but it doesn't mean it actually does what it claims. Boskey says companies behind unapproved STD treatments also rely on in vitro research: "Things that look really promising in vitro often just don't work [on adults]. Cells are not people." Many of these sites feature a prominent photo of a doctor: Herpaflor uses a shot of a doctor standing in front of a poster of the periodic table of elements. That seems respectable! But a quick Web search of that particular doctor's name reveals that, while he did get his Ph.D. in molecular genetics, his current full-time job is buying and selling collectible rocks, not practicing medicine.
Beyond trying to attract potential customers, these companies do everything they can to get around FDA regulations. "Read things really carefully and look at the fine print," says Boskey. "They make these claims that almost sound true but then you'll find a disclaimer on there that says, 'We can't make this claim.'" She isn't exaggerating. Viruxo.com covers its butt with small print explaining:
Statements expressed within this site have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any and all information and/or statements found within this site are for educational purposes only and are NOT intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent disease or replace the advice of a licensed healthcare practitioner.
That's odd, because the header at the very top of that page reads, "New Herpes Treatment! Cure For Herpes Outbreaks." It even takes aim at its competitors: "Many herpes treatment sites mislead with their miracle 'herpes cure'." Hilariously -- well, if it weren't so depressing -- Neveranoutbreak.com advertises its "All Natural Herpes Cure" but then warns in itty bitty print, "Remember no company can claim to offer a true herpes cure." I'd love to see a disclaimer on that disclaimer.
Look, sex finds us at our most vulnerable. We want stronger libidos, better orgasms (or orgasms, period), superior performance, larger penises, bigger breasts and smaller waistlines. We fear rejection, humiliation and, worst of all, being a "freak"; we seek validation through being wanted (or simply in not being rejected). How many industries have been built on these fundamental desires? It should come as no surprise then that there's a market for unproven STD "cures," or that people are willing to abandon all reason in pursuit of a magic fix that will make them feel "normal" and lovable again.