Fake Treatments for Fake Illnesses

I wrote previously on NeuroLogica blog about Morgellons disease. Both Peter Lipson and Wallace Sampson have also covered this interesting syndrome here on SBM. Briefly, sufferers of this dubious syndrome believe they have foreign material exuding from their skin, causing chronic itching and sores. The evidence suggests that in truth they suffer from something akin to delusional parasitosis – the false belief of foreign parasites in their skin, leading to chronic itching which causes the sores and also works clothing fibers into the skin, which are later exuded.

Morgellons, in short, is a fake disease, a false and somewhat far-fetched explanation for symptoms that have a much more prosaic, if undesired, explanation.

Those who believe they have Morgellons, however, are legitimately ill and are an extremely vulnerable population. They feel they have a serious and mysterious illness, and worse the medical profession does not understand their illness and so denies that it exists. This is a perfect setup for snake oil-peddling con-artists.

Colloidal Silver

Colloidal silver is a suspension of metallic silver in a colloidal base.  It has been around for a long time, and was used in limited indications for infections prior to the development of antibiotics. Use was phased out of scientific medicine decades ago because of lack of efficacy, because better options were available, but primarily because colloidal silver products have the potential to cause a serious side effect called argyria – deposition of silver salts in the skin and organs. This causes the skin to turn gray or bluish. In short, colloidal silver failed as a drug because it is toxic and ineffective.

However, colloidal silver is enjoying a second life as a “supplement.” Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) the FDA was able to only shut down sale of colloidal silver as a drug – meaning with claims that it cured or altered a specific disease, but could not prevent its sale as a supplement. Over the years the FDA has fined or sent strongly-worded letters to various companies selling colloidal silver as a supplement, but stepping over the line and making disease claims.

As a result of DSHEA, the public is no longer protected from this worthless and dangerous compound, rather the misguided or uncaring companies selling it are slightly inconvenienced in their marketing.

Two Cons in One

What if, however, a “supplement” (as legally defined by DSHEA) were marketed toward a fake disease? Would that violate FDA regulations?  It seems that some colloidal silver marketers hope the answer is no. NutraSilver is a company that is selling colloidal silver as a nutritional supplement, but specifically claiming that it treats Morgellons disease. Their website says:

Thousands of Morgellons victims have used NutraSilver to eliminate their brain fog, fatigue, depression and lesions in about 3 weeks.
NutraSilver, a scientifically engineered natural mineral,when taken as a nutritional supplement, kills the most severe pathogens known to mankind very quickly.

The product is also marketed through Morgellons-specific websites, like There also seems to be a viral campaign underway, with individuals pushing NutraSilver on Morgellons message boards and blogs. One even infiltrated my own blog on Morgellons and left a comment that was obviously a sales pitch, complete with a link back to the NutraSilver website (which I deleted).

This may represent a new strategy – evading FDA regulations by marketing supplements towards fake diseases. We will see if it works. I have a complaint in to the FDA on NutraSilver and I will give follow up on what response, if any, I get.

NutraSilver is also being marketed toward Lyme disease and arthritis. In fact their website has a section called “disease applications.” So perhaps they are not savvy enough to evade the FDA. This would mean they are targeting Morgellons because they believe they have found a vulnerable population. The most cynical interpretation is that the marketers of NutraSilver believe that those who label themselves as having Morgellons are delusional and therefore easily manipulated with false hope.

Wilson’s Syndrome

There are many other examples of dubious therapies being aimed at equally dubious diseases.  Years ago I heard a radio ad for “Wilson’s Syndrome”, which was nothing more than a list of non-specific symptoms. Dr. Wilson seems to have just made up the syndrome, which he named after himself, so that he could lure the unsuspecting to his clinic. Over the years the “syndrome” has evolved into a mysterious hypothyroid syndrome, with the same list of non-specific symptoms (from fatigue to carpal tunnel syndrome), but also including occasional body temperature measured below 98.6. Dr. Wilson has published no research establishing his fake illness, which is, of course, not recognized by the medical establishment as having any legitimacy. The temperature claim is actually absurd – there is a normal range for body temperature – 98.6 being exactly normal is a fiction. But Wilson can convince the unsuspecting that they have a real syndrome by having them obsessively take their own temperature until they get a reading below the magic number.

Not surprisingly, clinics treating Wilson’s Syndrome also treat candida, chronic fatigue, and multiple environmental/chemical sensitivity – all dubious or highly overdiagnosed entities based upon non-specific symptoms.


Establishing that a set of signs and symptoms is a specific syndrome or disease is an extremely important function of scientific medicine. Recognizing that different people can suffer from the same pathophysiological disease in fact was the key insight that lead to modern scientific medicine. This is now also critical to medical research, and clinical trials often use very strict criteria for diagnosis the entity under study.

A further utility of having objective diseases, however, is regulation – especially when that regulation (like the current laws in the US) is based upon whether or not a claim can be made for a disease. The existence of fake or dubious diseases and syndromes has the potential (in addition to exploiting patients) to further frustrate efforts at objective and effective regulation in the health product marketplace.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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