The truth is that only the government has access to a true anthrax vaccine, and the "cure" -- a potent antibiotic -- is no sure thing, especially when taken without a doctor's supervision.
"It's terrible that these kinds of Web sites would pop up to prey on the paranoia of our citizens," says Paul Doering, a pharmacy professor at the University of Florida. "People are frightened enough as it is."
While many online pharmacies are reputable, experts warn that some offer inadequate medical supervision, unproven claims and questionable products, especially if they're located abroad.
"You never know what you're going to get," Doering says. "You could be passed off aspirin tablets, and you're never going to know."
Many underground pharmacy Web sites kicked into high gear after cases of inhaled anthrax -- the most deadly form of the disease -- appeared in the south Florida city of Boca Raton. Three employees of a chain of supermarket tabloids were exposed to the germ. One of them died, while the other two are recovering.
Today, authorities in New York City reported that an employee of NBC News had been exposed to a much milder form of anthrax that is spread through cuts or scratches in the skin. Officials speculate that a letter that arrived at NBC headquarters in late September may have carried the germ. The woman is responding well to treatment, officials say.
Online pharmacies clearly consider the anthrax scares to be a business opportunity, and they've rushed to sell an antibiotic known as Cipro, which is used most commonly to treat urinary tract infections. Cipro reduces the fatality rate from exposure to inhaled anthrax, but only if treatment begins immediately after exposure. Since anthrax spores are too small to see and they have no smell or other telltale sign, the victim may not know he's been exposed, however. Anthrax symptoms normally don't appear for a few days, but some online pharmacies keep that information to themselves.
One British company declares: "You can ease your mind, by obtaining a cure for this sort of deadly attack! Store your supply in a cabinet, just in case the worst should happen."
Other sites lead consumers to believe that taking the expensive drug will prevent the disease. Many point to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of the drug to suggest it can prevent the disease. But the FDA has only approved the drug for treatment once someone has been exposed to airborne Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, not as a preventative.
Cipro prices online don't appear to be a bargain. At several sites, a month's supply -- 60 tablets -- sells for just below $400, including shipping and "consultation fees."
By contrast, at drugstore.com, a certified online pharmacy, a month's supply of Cipro costs $260.
Some sites offer Cipro in insufficient amounts. For example, one sells Cipro for "anthrax exposure" in 3-, 7-, 15- and 30-day supplies, even though experts say the drug must be taken for at least a month, possibly two, to be effective against anthrax.
Consumers take a risk when they go to online pharmacies that both prescribe and dispense medicines, says Susan Winckler, group director of policy and advocacy with the American Pharmaceutical Association.
"Many times you don't even know who it is that's prescribing the medication," she says. "Medications are safe and effective when they're used appropriately. It's simply not possible without more interaction than what you get through a form."
In a recent study, 46 online pharmacies refused to provide information about their medical staff members to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. The study also found that online drug prices were 10 percent higher than those of Philadelphia-area pharmacies, and cost even more when shipping was added.
Medical experts are also warning against the hoarding of Cipro. Although its manufacturer, Bayer Pharmaceutical, is stepping up production, the supply of the drug is limited. "If everyone goes out and gets a stockpile of Cipro today to put aside for an anthrax infection, it may not be there tomorrow when someone needs it to treat an active, non-anthrax infection," Winckler says.
If consumers want to get Cipro on the Internet, experts suggest they visit online pharmacies that only fill prescriptions from outside doctors. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy certifies those sites that meet its extensive criteria.
What To Do
Stick with certified online pharmacies unless you're prepared to take big risks with your health. Don't accept prescriptions from doctors you've never met.
To see if an online pharmacy is certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, visit this Web site.
The Food & Drug Administration offers tips on how to buy drugs online.
For more on what you can do about false health claims on the Internet, see the Federal Trade Commission and its rules for what advertisers can and cannot say. Here's what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has to say on the subject.
Think you've been taken for a ride by false claims? To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). To get an overview of what scams are currently going around, check out Consumer Sentinel.