NEW YORK • The United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been dragged into the online world of medical misinformation, telling consumers not to drink bleach solutions that are being marketed as cures for autism, cancer, HIV/Aids and other medical conditions.
It was the latest example of how health authorities must sometimes pit science against the viral power of the Internet, which regularly serves as a platform for inaccurate medical advice and unproven claims of breakthroughs.
The FDA has previously taken a stand against the "cruel deception" of supposed cures for cancer, the "dangerous scam" of bee pollen products for weight loss and claims that a dietary supplement can treat a concussion.
In a recent statement, it said it first told consumers not to drink the bleach products in 2010.
But its hand was forced again after the goods continued to be promoted on social media and sold online by independent distributors.
The agency recently received new reports of people being sickened.
"Ingesting these products is the same as drinking bleach," said the FDA's acting commissioner, Dr Ned Sharpless.
"Consumers should not use these products and parents should not give these products to their children for any reason."
The FDA's statement referred to products that use the names Miracle or Master Mineral Solution; Master Mineral Supplement; Water Purification Solution; Chlorine Dioxide Protocol; and MMS.
Generally, they are composed of a solution of sodium chlorite and distilled water, with instructions for consumers to add citric acid, which turns them into a powerful bleaching agent.
The distributors, who were not named in the statement, claim the result is an "anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-bacterial" remedy for autism, cancer, HIV/Aids, hepatitis, flu and other conditions.
But such claims are "false" and "dangerous", the FDA added. Its advice to those who are drinking it: "Stop now."
Consuming the solution is comparable with drinking the active ingredients in disinfectants and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and severe dehydration, the FDA noted.
The American Association of Poison Control Centres said in its annual report that 226 cases of exposure to non-household bleach were reported to national poison control centres in 2017, compared with 276 in 2016.
The data did not include whether the exposure was accidental or intentional, or whether it resulted in fatalities.
The FDA received reports of at least 20 people affected by exposure to MMS, with at least seven deaths of people who ingested Miracle Mineral Solution - two last year and one each in 2017, 2014, 2013, 2011 and 2009.
But the problem could be wider.
Experts said not everyone who is exposed to the solution will report it because the labels on such products say vomiting and diarrhoea are common side effects.
The FDA has warned and taken action against companies promoting other products purported to be used as a treatment for autism, including cleanses, detoxifying clay baths and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
The dangers of medical misinformation were highlighted in an investigation by NBC News that was published in June and examined online attempts to encourage the use of chlorine dioxide to treat autism, which has no known cure.
This year, Amazon removed online listings for two books that claim to contain cures for autism, one of which, Healing The Symptoms Known As Autism, recommends that children with the condition drink and bathe in chlorine dioxide.
That kind of online medical misinformation continues to pose challenges for the FDA as it tries to block distributors of unapproved drugs that are marketed as cure-alls.
"These folks can move incredibly quickly," said Dr Peter Lurie, president of Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit group.
"They can put up the website much more quickly than the FDA can act to take it down. The FDA is always playing catch-up."