French prosecutors said Thursday that they had opened an inquiry into dozens of doctors prescribing antibiotics and other drugs as a purported treatment for autism in children, potentially endangering their health.

The investigation comes after an alert by France’s ANSM medicines watchdog that doctors were prescribing long-term courses of antibiotics and drugs against metal poisoning to autistic children.

According to Olivia Cattan, who heads the help group SOS Autisme and has written a book on the practice, some 50 doctors in France are thought to be treating up to 5,000 children this way.

Such prescriptions have been linked to controversial ideas from Nobel Medicine Prize laureate Luc Montagnier, honoured in 2008 for his co-discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, but frequently dismissed by the medical community for his unconventional ideas in recent years.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said its public health department has been entrusted with the probe into charges of “endangering the lives of others” and “offences related to research involving human beings.”

On Tuesday, the ANSM said it had referred the matter, flagged by Cattan, to prosecutors after collecting evidence including parents’ testimony and prescription sheets.

The watchdog said the children were prescribed antibiotics, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic or anti-viral drugs, as well as treatments for heavy metal ingestion that are normally reserved for use in case of poisoning.

The ANSM “formally advises against these uses, for which these drugs have not shown to be effective and which put these children at risk, particularly with prolonged use.”

Effects can include digestive, cardiovascular and skin disorders, while misuse of antibiotics can lead to drug resistance that undermines the effectiveness of future treatments.

The ANSM has also alerted French doctors’ and pharmacists’ associations.

Montagnier has repeatedly suggested that infection may be what causes autism, and set up much-criticised experiments to prove it.

He has claimed that parents and doctors have observed benefits from long-term antibiotic treatment, but most medical professionals remain sceptical of the assertion.

Montagnier is not the only French medical expert to court controversy with unorthodox treatments.

Didier Raoult, a doctor in the southern city of Marseille, has been promoting hydroxychloroquine, usually used in cases of malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, as a treatment for Covid-19 — a remedy vaunted by Donald Trump but shot down by clinical research.

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