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'It could be catastrophic': Woman says natural supplement contained hidden painkiller drug

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A Manitoba woman thought she found a miracle natural supplement, but said a hidden ingredient wreaked havoc on her health.

Magic – that’s how Carla Anne Ferguson's friends and family described the Umary Hyaluronic Acid Dietary Supplement.

From all she was being told, the Umary supplement was working miracles.

"A friend of mine told me that someone had been using a walker and was no longer using a walker and they were walking completely fine and thinking about taking up pickleball," the Steinbach, Man. woman said.

"It felt like everyone was taking Umary except me."

The Mexican-made supplement boasts natural ingredients that can help relieve pain. Ferguson, who was having trouble walking, was hesitant at first. But after checking the supplement's ingredients list and seeing nothing of concern – she decided to give it a try.

"I took one pill – felt amazing. It was like magic," she said. "Within 20 minutes, I could go up and down the stairs with no pain. I was standing up. I was able to do exercising, which I hadn't been able to do for a while."

So Ferguson kept taking it – one 850 milligram pill a day, and sometimes two if she needed it.

"I thought I was having a heart attack"

While on vacation, Ferguson said she started feeling strange – she was short of breath, her chest was tight and she was getting rashes on her legs and blisters on her lips.

When she got home, her symptoms continued to get worse.

"I started having severe chest pain and back pain, and eventually I couldn't lift my arm," she said. "I thought I was having a heart attack."

Her daughter took her to the hospital where she said the hospital staff asked if she had taken cocaine. But she said she's never taken any drugs and wasn't on any medication – the only thing she was taking was her Umary supplement.

To find out for sure, Ferguson sent her supplement to the 'Get Your Drugs Tested' organization in Vancouver, which offers free drug testing using an FTIR drug-testing machine.

"It came back, 40 to 45 per cent of the pills I was taking was diclofenac," Ferguson said.

What is diclofenac?

Pharmacist Chirag Patel, owner of Brandt Pharmacy in Steinbach, said diclofenac is a potent anti-inflammatory drug prescribed to treat chronic pain. It is approved for use by Health Canada, most commonly sold under the name Voltaren.

"The maximum dose for the diclofenac is usually 150 to 200 milligrams per day," he said, adding that based on Ferguson's test results, she was likely taking around two to four times the recommended dosage every day.

"If you exceed the dose for a diclofenac, it's going to affect in many ways your body, especially the gastrointestinal tract and also lead to internal bleeding," he said. "It can lead to heart attack and stroke as well, and also its effect can lead to kidney and liver toxicity."

According to the drug-testing company in Vancouver, Ferguson's situation isn't unique.

"We have tested a few samples sold to clients as the “UMARY” supplement. Consistently the results from our FTIR machine have shown diclofenac present at about 35-55% of the sample," the Get Your Drugs Tested organization told CTV News in a statement.

It said so far, five samples specifically sold as Umary have been tested, along with many more samples that match the description of the Umary pills – which have unique markings on them.

A picture of the Umary pill that Carla Anne Ferguson was taking. (Carla Anne Ferguson/Facebook)

"We speculate that diclofenac may be hidden behind other ingredients such as nettle or “ortiga” in Spanish and unfortunately is not directly specified on the label," the statement from Get Your Drugs Tested reads.

When asked how confident they are in their results, the organization said there are limitations to the testing, such as determining specific natural ingredients in complex mixtures. It said they can't say with 100 per cent confidence a sample is in fact diclofenac.

"We have submitted a sample for further testing but have not yet received the results," it said.

Umary said products could be counterfeit, won't say if supplement contains diclofenac

CTV News reached out to the Umary company, which said it operates strictly within the current legal and regulatory frameworks established by the Mexican authorities.

It said its commercial presence is exclusively limited to Mexico, and does not sell products in Canada.

"Therefore, any product labelled under our brand in Canada is not related to our company, and we cannot guarantee its authenticity or quality," it said in a statement. "We are not responsible for products that may be sold in that country under our brand without our consent, which could be counterfeit."

Umary would not say if its supplement contains diclofenac when asked by CTV News.

"It could be catastrophic."

Health Canada confirmed the Umary supplement is not authorized in Canada.

"Health Canada has received four complaints related to the undeclared presence of diclofenac in UMARY Supplements," a statement from federal government reads. "Health Canada is following up with the Canadian websites identified in the complaints to stop the sale of the unauthorized products."

The department said if it finds any non-compliance with the Food and Drugs Act, it will take action based on the risk posed to the general public.

Health Canada confirmed it has only authorized one product under the Umary brand, which is used for joint health and bone development. However, it said the product has not been marketed for sale in the country.

It warns Canadians should only use health products authorized by Health Canada, as they are assessed for safety, efficacy, and quality. Products that are authorized by Health Canada are labelled with a Drug Identification Number (DIN), Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM).

It said Canadians need to be careful when buying natural health products online, saying some products may be counterfeit and missing information can lead to unwanted side effects.

More details about how to safely buy natural health products online are available on Health Canada's website. 

"When you take a drug and it works in 15 or 20 minutes and you're pain-free, that's not a natural supplement," Ferguson said.

She is in the process of getting tests done on her heart, kidneys and liver to see if there is any lasting damage. She's warning others to be careful.

"The potential for huge damage is – it could be catastrophic."

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