RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - There are at least two Virginians sickened in a multi-state outbreak of salmonella in the past week, linked to capsules of the herbal supplement kratom.
Kratom is an herbal supplement that comes from a south Asian plant. It's been a controversial topic for months. Doctors question its safety, while many who use it for opioid withdrawal or pain relief swear by its effectiveness.
NBC12's Alex Whittler spoke to kratom users, who chose to remain anonymous. One of them says she's still going to use kratom for her pain, despite the CDC's warning of salmonella and its questionable health ramifications.
Doctors say there's just a lot of unknown.
"You have an unknown product, you don't know how pure it is…what else is in it," VCU toxicologist, Dr. Kirk Cumpston said.
There are a number of people in favor of the drug, like John Shinholser, President and Co-founder of the McShin Foundation.
"Kratom is a great tool to diminish the pain from opioid withdrawal," Shinholser said.
It's banned in five states across the country, but it's legal to buy in Virginia - cheap and readily available online. Kratom's main use is to help people wean off opioids or kill pain.
Shinholser says, contrary to popular belief, "the main kratom users aren't abusers. They use it for regular reasons."
To an extent, doctors agree.
"It seems that it helps. It's kept [former opioid users] from withdrawing, using heroin or other opioids," Cumpston said.
Though supporters even admit, "if you already have the addiction gene, yes you can abuse kratom," said Shinholser.
The Virginia Department of Health says there was one kratom death in 2015, five the next year, and by the third quarter of 2017, there were another five deaths from the herbal supplement.
This new link to salmonella just spiked another point in the debate: safe vending.
Dr. Cumpston says the millions of dollars that go into developing safe drugs is the reason why the FDA works hard to approve products.
There is no certainty, Dr. Cumpston says, when buying supplements that are not FDA-approved. He says the salmonella risk only heightens the possibility of something going wrong.
Those who spoke to NBC12 anonymously say they research their vendors long before making a purchase, and one woman says she even makes her own capsules. She says she thinks this eliminates her chances of getting salmonella from the outbreak.
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