The tragic death this week of 21-year-old Eloise Parry, who took eight slimming tablets she bought online, highlights the dangers of shopping for drugs on the internet. While the Office of Fair Trading confirms that hundreds of thousands of Britons turn to the internet every year to buy drugs, the UK's drug watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has found that up to 90% of medicines sold online are fakes.
But as Eloise Parry discovered so horribly, slimming (and other) tablets bought online can be equally dangerous even if they do contain what they claim. She bought dinitrophenol (DNP), which was marketed in the 1930s as a weight loss drug after munitions makers in France in the First World War complained of weight loss and sweating when they were exposed to it. DNP works by interfering with the body's energy production at the level of individual cells, boosting metabolism to cause weight loss. It rapidly gained popularity in the early 1930s, but was banned for human consumption in 1938 because of serious health concerns.
Acute poisoning with DNP causes nausea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness, palpitations, headaches, flushing and rapid breathing. In severe cases it leads to hyperthermia, where the body overheats uncontrollably, and there is no effective antidote. At lower doses, it can cause cataracts and problems with the nervous system, heart and blood.
DNP is still used as an industrial herbicide and in making dyes - which allows unscrupulous drug peddlers to make and sell the chemical dressed up as a 'miracle' diet cure. Shockingly, an e-book on Amazon UK's site even instructs people on how to take it to lose weight, and provides contact details for suppliers. The drug is very unpredictable, and even a tiny dose could prove fatal - put bluntly, it's a poison with absolutely no safe dose.
So why do we put our lives at risk by buying drugs online? Some medicines can be bought safely, but only from online pharmacies which carry the 'green cross' logo of the General Pharmaceutical Council, meaning that it's connected with a physical pharmacy and governed by the same rules. Sometimes people turn to the internet when their doctor won't provide a prescription on the NHS - usually for very good reason. For instance, the second most common type of drug confiscated by the MHRA are diet pills, and many are brands which, like DNP, have been banned because of health concerns, including heart and mental health risks.
In some cases, patients buy drugs online because they're cheaper than a private prescription offered by their GP. GPs are allowed to prescribe medicines like Viagra® and Cialis® for patients who don't qualify for them on medical grounds - but they are the most commonly bought drugs on the internet in the UK. I was recently faced with a very embarrassed patient who admitted to buying one of these online at a 'bargain price', only to suffer nasty side effects.
Most of us use the internet - whether for shopping or for advice and information. When you use reputable sites - including, of course, patient.info, written by GPs for GPs and their patients - it can be a fabulous resource. But the internet is virtually entirely unpoliced. It makes me so sad when desperate patients are conned by internet promises of miracle cures, dressed up with flashy websites or pseudo-scientific papers. At best, it can raise their hopes only for them to be dashed; at worst, it can be deadly. You wouldn't dream of buying drugs from a dodgy bloke on a street corner - remember the next time you see an internet drug advert that, by replying, you're basically doing just that.
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