Web Sites Selling Herbal 'Viagra' Criticized


Study Questions Safety and Reliability of Sites' Medical Information


March 24, 2005 -- Web sites touting herbal "Viagra" for erectile dysfunction draw criticism in a new British study.

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It's easy and confidential to find such sites, say the researchers. But "patients should be cautious as safety and reliability of this approach is poor," they write.


They're particularly concerned that some sites may not provide all the facts about the products or warn patients to get their hearts checked out.


Erectile dysfunction (ED) may be a sign of heart disease or blood vessel problems.


These conditions could go undetected and untreated in patients using herbal treatments, say the researchers.


Without knowing the ingredients or side effects of such treatments, patients could unwittingly put their health at risk.

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ED Affects Millions of Men


Erectile dysfunction (ED) affects nearly 30 million men in the U.S., say the researchers. ED may stem from physical or psychological issues or a combination of both factors.


It doesn't mean that men lack the desire or sexual interest, and it's not a normal, occasional problem. Instead, ED is a man's consistent inability to maintain an erection to have satisfactory sex.


The risk of erectile dysfunction increases with age:

  • About 40% of men in their 40s report at least occasional problems getting and maintaining erections.

  • 52% of men between ages 40 and 70 report erection problems.

  • About 70% of men in their 70s report erection problems.

Doctors can prescribe treatments to help, but many men don't discuss ED with their doctors. "It is estimated that close to 90% of ED sufferers are still reluctant to visit their family doctors because of embarrassment," says the study.


With Internet access common, some men may go online to look for solutions. But they may not always get what they bargained for, the study suggests.

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Looking at 33 websites selling herbal substitutes for Viagra, the researchers spotted red flags including:

  • No information from medically trained staff (79% of the sites)

  • No statement that the site's information doesn't replace medical advice (76% of the sites)

  • No warning about ED-associated heart disease (None of the sites posted this warning.)

  • No information about contraindications (64% of the sites)

  • No information on side effects (79% of the sites)

  • Lack of referenced information (82% of the sites)

  • Lack of disclaimers (67% of the sites)

  • No information about ingredients (30% of the sites)

  • No information on the effectiveness of the herbs (18% of the sites)

"All sites fell short of the Health on the Net requirements," says the study.


The Health On the Net (HON) Foundation is a medical and health website accreditation organization supported by the World Health Organization.

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HON provides standards that it recommends health information websites adhere to.


What's in the Bottle?


Herbal treatments aren't regulated by the government. The most common ingredients cited in the study were Yohimbe, ginseng, and ginkgo Biloba.


Yohimbe can cause headaches, sweating, and high blood pressure, making it inappropriate for patients with heart and neurological disease, say the researchers.


Reports of diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and allergic skin reactions have been linked to Ginkgo Biloba, they say.


That's not to say that those herbs might not have an effect on ED.


But the pros and cons of any treatment -- herbal or not -- should be made clear, the study suggests.

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Health experts recommend that patients tell their doctors about any supplements they take (including herbal products and vitamins).


That could help avoid interactions between treatments.


Herbal or Not?


Two years ago, the FDA cracked down on a supposedly all-natural herbal treatment marketed to men and women to enhance the sexual experience.


The FDA learned that the product, called Vinarol, actually contained Viagra's active ingredient, says the study.


"It is unknown how many other treatments for ED marketed as "herbal" supplements actually contain active and potentially dangerous compounds," write the researchers, who included Ramesh Thurairaja of the urology department at England's Bristol Royal Infirmary.


The study appears in the March/April issue of the International Journal of Impotence Research.


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