July 1, 2008

Your Life: Dear Miriam – Just Say No to Drugs on the Internet ; HEALTH


THE idea of getting the medication you need at a fraction of the cost just by clicking on a computer screen can be tempting.

In fact, selling prescription-only drugs over the internet is big business, and is said to account for one in 10 of all drugs purchases worldwide.

But it could seriously damage your health - or even be fatal, which is why I'm wholly against taking any medication bought on the web.

Tomorrow a new report by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines will reveal that more than 60 per cent of medicines purchased online are fake or sub-standard.

And we're not just talking about sexual performance drugs such as Viagra, but medication for life-threatening conditions like heart disease, obesity and depression - all of which are now accessible to anyone with a computer.

Net dangers

Currently, it's illegal in the UK to offer prescribed drugs on the net, but it is not illegal to buy them. And many companies exploit the legal loophole by being based overseas but selling to people in the UK.

However, buy online and you could be taking your life into your hands. Here's why...

Fake medication There's a three in five chance of receiving fake or sub-standard medicine when you buy online.

Only 40 per cent of the medicines tested in the new report were found to be genuine branded medicines.

So at best you could be wasting your money, at worst risking your life. Some net drugs have even been found to contain harmful substances.

There's no GP required You can buy medicines without a prescription or even talking to a GP or pharmacist, which is dangerous as your general state of health isn't checked.

So the drugs you're buying may react badly with other medications you're taking or with other conditions you have - something your doctor would be aware of. Anyone suffering from depression, for example, should be under close supervision before they start taking certain obesity drugs.

Undiagnosed conditions If you're self-medicating, you may not be aware that your symptoms are due to a more serious underlying condition.

For example, erectile dysfunction can be a sign of heart disease. In this case, taking Viagra could be fatal.

No dosage control Without a doctor overseeing treatment, it can be easy to overdose on potentially harmful drugs. Or, just as worrying, you might be underdosing on a life-saving treatment you desperately need. This could happen if the internet drug, such as a steroid, is sub-strength and only contains a fraction of the active ingredient it promises to.

Why we're doing it We're living in an age of self-diagnosis. There's so much information (a lot of it incorrect) available on the internet, so people think they can diagnose an illness and then self- prescribe a treatment.

One woman in Sunderland severely damaged her vision with steroid pills bought online from Thailand. The 64-year-old had taken the drug for four years after she gave herself a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome.

It was only when she went to hospital with worsening sight and admitted what she'd been taking that doctors discovered the high- dose drugs had irreversibly damaged her eyes.

People also buy online so they can avoid having to see their doctor for conditions they find embarrassing, like erectile dysfunction.

Others don't want a condition such as depression to be recorded on their files and so decide to self-medicate in secret. And people who have to pay for their prescriptions may also be attracted to cheaper prices. But this is likely to be a false economy.

What not to buy

Here are just some of the dangerous drugs on offer:


This is probably the easiest drug to buy online. Even if you're not bombarded with ads in your email inbox, it takes just seconds to track it down with a search engine.

The risks

Even if the drugs are real, skipping a visit to your GP could put your life at risk. Erection problems may be the first symptom of a number of serious conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or cholesterol, prostate disease or several neurological conditions - all of which must be checked out by a doctor. Plus, if you're taking medication for a heart condition or have an undiagnosed one, Viagra - which makes the heart work harder - could prove fatal.


The prescription-only diet drugs Xenical, Reductil and Acomplia are readily available online without a prescription. At best a site may insist you fill in a questionnaire, but it's easy to lie about your medical history and true weight.

The risks

People with eating disorders are attracted to buying these drugs to lose weight quickly. However, they are for the clinically obese and if taken by anyone with a body mass index of less than 27 they're putting themselves at risk of malnutrition and its associated health problems. People suffering from depression should not take Acomplia as it is linked with a rise in anxiety and depression, while other obesity drugs are not suitable for people with a history of heart disease in their family.


Most anti-depressants, including Prozac and Seroxat, are readily available on the net with no prescription or consultation. And while many sites list possible side-effects, it's easy to bypass this and go straight to the check-out.

The risks

I'm distressed at the thought of someone trying to self-treat their depression, as this could make symptoms worse. Even if the product is real, anti-depressants can have very severe side- effects, such as mood swings and anxiety, and should never be taken without a doctor's supervision.


These cholesterol-lowering drugs with brand names such as Lipitor are very cheap on the net. People with high cholesterol have been known to buy them in bulk online to save money. But I can't see any reason to do this when the cheapest statin, simvastatin, can be bought safely and in a controlled way over-the counter in your local chemist.

The risks

It's impossible to know if the drug you've bought is real or fake. At worst, you'd find out when it's too late and you've suffered a heart attack or stroke.

Additional reporting: CAROLINE JONES

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