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N.C. Health Department Warns Of Web-Based Prescribing Of Anthrax Drug

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As a North Carolina drug company responds to the sudden demand for an antibiotic to counter the threat of anthrax by offering the drug online, the N.C. Health Department issues a warning.

Virtual Medical Group began offering Cipro prescriptions on itsWeb site last week following the death of a Florida man who hadcontracted anthrax.

Cipro is an antibiotic that - if used in the early stages - cantreat the rare disease that has raised fears of biologicalterrorism.

CEO Tania Malik says her company processes about 100 requestsfor prescriptions each day, mostly from New York and Florida. Itsell a 60-day prescription for $399.

Health officials fear that people will overuse the drug anddiminish its effectiveness because anthrax symptoms are similar toflu.

Federal authorities Wednesday said a third employee of asupermarket tabloid publisher in Florida had been exposed toanthrax and that the case had become the subject of a criminalinvestigation.

Officials with the N.C. Department of Health say that the company's offer to prescribe antibiotics via the Internet to people concerned about anthrax is preying on the public's fears and could do more harm than good.

North Carolina State epidemiologist Dr. Kelly McKee says that physicians should not be prescribing Cipro for preparedness and security. "This is clearly not in the best interest of the public and poses potential health risks," he said.

"There are a number of reasons why this web-based prescribing is a problem,"Dr. McKee said. "It is essential that a physician have personal contact witha patient before prescribing antibiotics. You can't achieve that kind ofrelationship over the phone. If someone feels sick, they should consulttheir personal physician. If someone is feeling mental anxiety over thecurrent situation, then they need to consult with a mental health expert."

McKee says there are a number of reasons why the Internet pharmaceuticalshop is a problem. "People may decide to take the drug as a preventivebecause they can easily obtain it over the web," he said. "Taking a strongantibiotic like Cipro, when you don't have a bacterial infection, may cause lots of problems. Broad-spectrum antibiotics like Cipro affect both good and bad bacteria. Taking it incorrectly may lead to other health problems. For instance, it can affect the normal bacteria in your gastrointestinal system, which may lead to serious diarrhea and could lead to the development of difficult to treat drug-resistant bacteria."

McKee says there is also a danger in stockpiling any medicine for the future. "Medicines lose their effectiveness over time," he said. "Theyshould only be prescribed when their use is immediate and when there is a proper indication.

"Needlessly prescribing Cipro may reduce the country's stocks to the point where it will be hard for people, who really need the drug for bacterial infections, to get the drug," he added. "Cipro is a great antibiotic for a lot of conditions that occur every day. People need to be taking it for those conditions, not getting it off of the Internet because they're fearful of the possibility of bioterrorism."

For more information on anthrax, consult the

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's

Web site.

For help on obtaining local mental health assistance, you can call the department's CareLine at