Some of the Web addresses were linked with servers at prestigious educational institutions in the United States, including Dartmouth College, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, without those institutions' knowledge.
Almost all (98.6 percent) shipped to the United States.
When the researchers actually ordered different antibiotics, they found that the mean delivery time was eight days, meaning that most arrived after the buyer should have already recovered from his or her illness.
"One order came in 28 days from the day we submitted the online purchase," said Mainous. "By then, either you're hospitalized or it's going away."
Sites also tended to sell quantities far in excess of what you would need for one course with a prescription, often with the same shipping cost for a small or large order, Mainous said.
And were the antibiotics always the drugs these online sellers claimed they were? The study authors weren't sure. "We could not to determine how often pharmaceuticals purchased over the Internet were not genuine, inactive, out of date, or adulterated," they wrote.
Consumer education is probably not enough to solve the problem, given that people tend to repeat familiar behaviors, Mainous said.
U.S. regulatory agencies need to step up their efforts to enforce existing laws, according to the study authors. Pharmaceutical companies also need to keep on top of where their products are selling.
"If it's freely available, then I think you're going to see much more self-medication and much more self-diagnosis, with very little control," Mainous said.
The study didn't investigate how many people were actually buying antibiotics off the Internet, but Mainous has found that as many as 20 p
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