Concern has also come from within the supplements industry: last month by a coalition of industry associations that consumers, retailers and marketers should be on their guard for products making avian 'flu claims. Any therapies for the disease should be recommended only by qualified healthcare professionals or public health authorities, it said.
To date no cases of avian 'flu, in either birds or humans, have been diagnosed in North America. It is thought that the virus can be transmitted to humans only through close contact with infected birds, and that it is relatively rare.
As at November 23, 131 human cases and 68 deaths from the virus had been reported in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. Some experts have expressed fears that the disease could turn into a global pandemic if the virus mutates to be transmitted human-to-human, and media coverage has led to concern amongst consumers around the world wishing to protect themselves should the problem escalate.
The FDA identified nine companies, eight of which market products said to be supplements, that have sought to tap into this concern with claims such as "prevents avian flu," "a natural virus shield," "kills the virus," and "treats the avian flu."
It says that these claims are misleading since they have no scientific basis. What is more, since they claim to prevent or cure a disease the FDA is considering these products as new drugs, which would require rigorous testing and approval prior to marketing.
"There are initiatives in place to deter counterfeiters and those who sell fraudulent or phony products to prevent or treat avian flu," said acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.
"The use of unproven flu cures and treatments increases the risk of catching and spreading the flu rather than lessening it because people assume they are protected and safe and they aren't. I consider it a public health hazard when people are lured into using bogus treatments based on deceptive or fraudulent medical claims."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the single best way to protect against seasonal 'flu is to have a have a vaccination each fall.
No shot exists specifically for avian 'flu, but the Public Health Agency of Canada says that people planning to travel to areas affected by the virus (H5N1) may wish to consider vaccination against more common seasonal 'flu, as it would make them less likely to be infected with both viruses at the same time.
There are fears that if this happened, the two viruses could mutate and merge into one new virus which could spread more quickly.