Donald R. Fox II is selling a skin cream he says can relieve the suffering of AIDS patients who develop sores and rashes. And to bolster his claims, Fox has distributed a lavish endorsement of his product from the director of Pinellas County's AIDS Coalition.
"There is no cure as of yet for the virus, but with contributions like yours, it can be a little less painful and also the patients know that there are people that actually care," Kathleen Farrell is quoted as writing in the endorsement.
There's just one problem, Farrell said: She didn't write the letter. Whoever wrote the letter didn't even spell her name correctly.
Now, state health officials are investigating ALPS South Corp., the St. Petersburg company that is marketing the skin ointments. Officials with the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in Tallahassee, who regulate drugs manufactured in Florida, said the company may be producing the cream without a necessary state license.
"There's some pretty blatant and fraudulent activity going on with these folks," said Stephen Kindland, a spokesman for the state health office and a member of the Florida AIDS Health Fraud Task Force. "My primary concern is getting the word out to clients who are being duped."
Donald R. Fox II, who signed a letter touting ALPS South Corp.'s ointments, declined to discuss the matter Wednesday. "We have no comment on this at this time," he said over the telephone.
Gregg Jones, a drug agent supervisor with the HRS Office of Drug Control in Tallahassee, said his office is investigating ALPS' claims, as well as the products themselves. ALPS letterhead lists the company's "plant" at a St. Petersburg address, and state officials want to know whether its products are, indeed, manufactured in Pinellas County.
"If they are manufacturing here, they are required to have a license from HRS, and they are required to register their product with the department," Jones said. "To my knowledge, the company is not licensed."
Kindland and others who are looking into the ointments say the product may actually contain little more than petroleum jelly, vitamins and other over-the-counter ingredients.
HRS' investigation of ALPS began earlier this week, when Abe Feingold, an AIDS researcher at the University of South Florida, received an unsolicited package from the company. The package contained two small bottles, one called ALPS Skin Lotion, and the other called ALPS Ointment.
In the endorsement letter, Farrell is quoted as saying her coalition distributed ALPS products to 60 clients. Forty-nine "out of the 60 showed rapid results, while the remainder of the client (sic) showed results over a period of a week."
One of the first things that attracted Feingold's attention was the signature on Farrell's alleged endorsement letter. Sure, the letter was typed on the AIDS Coalition Pinellas County's letterhead. But the director signed her name "Kathleen Farrah."
"That was a tip-off," said Feingold, who is associate director of USF's Center for HIV Education and Research.
Feingold contacted Farrell, who, in turn, contacted the Florida AIDS Health Fraud Task Force.
"I have never received any samples of the ALPS Prosthetic Ointment, nor do I ever make such endorsements," Farrell wrote to Kindland.
Officials say the complaints they received about ALPS are not, by any means, the first allegations regarding treatments and miracle cures for AIDS patients.
"What we're seeing is that all of the scams, fraud and trickery associated with cancer, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases have been dusted off and reapplied to AIDS patients," said Clara Lawhead, nutrition director at the Pasco County Health Unit, and a member of the AIDS task force.
"We are seeing more health frauds aimed at AIDS patients than all of the other diseases collectively," Lawhead said.
Why? Feingold thinks it is because some unscrupulous salespeople discovered that AIDS patients are particularly vulnerable.
"People are looking for help any way they can get it," Feingold said. "And they take whatever comes along at times, if they're desperate enough."