Abu Dhabi // Health officials have begun an investigation after The National was able to buy banned slimming pills on the internet from a doctor based in Dubai. The pills, Phyto Shape, were banned in the UAE two years ago because of potentially dangerous side-effects.
Both the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for all pharmaceuticals in the country, and the Dubai Health Authority, in charge of the licensing of clinics and doctors in the emirate, said they would investigate. The MoH has asked Etisalat to ban the website on which the doctor communicated with people seeking the pills. The DHA said it would take "appropriate action" if the doctor was found to be licensed.
Phyto Shape, which has been outlawed in several countries after one of the ingredients was linked to several deaths and reports of serious problems, is still in demand, mainly by women desperate to lose weight. Manufactured by the Malaysian company Etumax since 2000, the pills were withdrawn from sale in the UAE by the MoH in 2007. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has named Phyto Shape on a list of pills that should not be used because of suspect ingredients.
Despite the pills being prohibited in the UAE, The National was able to obtain a box of Phyto Shape after making contact with a doctor via the website www.topix.com, where women from several GCC countries swap hints on how to buy the drug. The doctor, identified as R. Mounir, openly gives out his e-mail address to arrange transactions. During an e-mail exchange, he did not ask any questions about medical history other than height, weight and attempts to shed pounds. Nor did he attempt to see the "patient" personally at any time.
He provided a telephone number for a man he referred to as his brother, which turned out to be same number given on the website by several different people as a source of supply. In a bizarre series of calls, instructions were issued on how to obtain the drug. First, the "brother" directed the reporter to Ibn Battuta Mall, where, he said, he would call her every three minutes with further directions. He would not reveal the final destination before the last call.
Waiting outside the Rosary Medical Centre in Dubai was a woman who sold 30 tablets, a half-month course, for Dh250 (US$68). A receptionist at the centre later confirmed that the phone number used to arrange the meeting was that of Dr Mounir. When contacted by The National, the doctor admitted that he had sold Phyto Shape, but said he was unaware of the drug being banned in the UAE. "I don't know about this ban because they are sending them to me," he said, explaining at one point that his supplies came from Canada and at another that they came from within the UAE.
"It is available and so it is strange to me that it is banned," he said. He claimed the drug was readily available at pharmacies, but The National was unable to purchase the pills at any of the four pharmacies it tried. Dr Mounir claimed to have stopped selling the drugs "more than one month ago". The website, however, reveals that he was confirming an order for Phyto Shape to be sent to Jeddah as late as May 31.
Listings over several months show women from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and even Germany contacting Dr Mounir for the drug. The doctor claims that he can send the drug "anywhere by a courier company" and informs a woman in India that he can get her seven boxes of the pills within days. Messages on the site indicate that a doctor in Abu Dhabi is also distributing the banned pills. When informed how The National had obtained the pills, Dr Amin al Amiri, the executive director of licensing and medical practices at the MoH, said: "The Ministry of Health is investigating and the investigation is continuing. A letter was sent to the Etisalat authority asking them to ban this website." He said anyone with information about banned medication should contact the MoH.
"If a clinic sells non-registered or banned drugs, then we will take immediate action, as per the law," he said. "We need the co-operation from the community to inform us. The private sector is huge, and we need help from the community to discover any illegal practices." When contacted by The National, a DHA spokesman said: "The DHA health regulation will investigate this matter. If the person selling this banned drug is a registered doctor in Dubai, we will take appropriate action against him. It is illegal to sell drugs that are banned in the UAE.
"The public should ensure that they buy their medication from registered pharmacies as banned medication can cause serious health complications." The MoH said the drug had been banned because it contained sibutramine, a prescription medication for obesity not listed as an ingredient. In 2002, Phyto Shape was reported to have been linked to 28 deaths in the United States, two in Italy and two in Britain. Late last year the FDA named it as one of several slimming pills that contained medication not listed on the label.
The FDA press release said: "One product, known as Phyto Shape, even contained rimonabant, the cannabinoid-receptor blocker that has been linked to neurological and psychiatric side-effects." Rimonabant has been linked to five deaths in Britain. The manufacturer of Phyto Shape, Etumax, claims the product is a herbal supplement. The pill insert states: "It is a blend of 100% natural, healthy, stimulant free, thermogenic herbal extracts with no side effects." The sentiment was echoed on the manufacturer's website: "Phyto Shape is a 100% herbal food supplement made from high-quality extract FDA-approved herbs."
The company also claims that most people lose 4kg in the first month of treatment and there are no serious side-effects. "Out of thousands using Phyto Shape, none have reported such adverse effects," it said on its website. "The only side- effects we hear about are increased energy, loss of appetite and thirst." The pills can be ordered on the company's website for $60 (Dh190), and shipped for an additional charge.
Dr Salem Beshyah, an endocrinologist at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, said he had seen many patients who had taken the pills but it was difficult to know the exact number. "I suspect it is large, but I don't have numbers," he said. "Because it is not legally available in the country, no one will be able to give you proper numbers." He warned that the consequences of taking Phyto Shape could be severe, and the danger signals often progressed rapidly.
"It starts with being dizzy, confused, sweating, shaking," he said, "and if they are not treated they will develop loss of consciousness. If they are not treated they can actually die." Dr Beshyah said people taking the medication should inform their doctors because there may be medical interactions that required supervision. He said one of his patients had almost died from taking the medication. In a posting on www.topix.com, one woman said she would never use the pills again after suffering irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath and blurred vision.
Others are willing to take the risk, however. In April this year, another woman from Dubai wrote: "I am an old user of Phyto Shape. I used it about two years ago. I lost 18 kilos within 40 to 50 days. I am well aware of the side-effects, but I have reached the point in my life that I can't take it any more." On a UAE site, ExpatWoman.com, a posting said: "I did get slight heart palpitations which worried me slightly but they eased off. I couldn't believe the fast results.
"I know people will say it's not good to lose that much in a short space of time, but when you have tried everything going it is the boost you need." Meanwhile, www.topix.com was still up and running yesterday. But Rania Halawani, a nutritionist based in Dubai, warned women not to take the pills. "I find it weird that people prefer to suffer, to take these pills not knowing what is in them, than to eat reasonably," she said. "You're not talking about a headache, it is death."