Beware the bird flu spammers

An international pharmaceutical firm has warned Web users to be cautious as spammers see a profit in the potential flu pandemic

Medical experts have warned Internet users about spam which links to a Web site supposedly selling avian flu antiviral drugs.

An increasing amount of junk mail has been detected which claims to sell Tamiflu, the antiviral medication believed to be most effective against the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus.

The spam emails urge recipients to protect themselves and their families from the bird flu virus by purchasing Tamiflu from a Web site. This Web site also supposedly sells Viagra, and a number of other medications.

Roche, the pharmaceutical company that produces Tamiflu, had not heard of the spam or the Web site, but said that it was "unfortunate to hear about it".

Roche advises people not to purchase Tamiflu from the Internet as the drug is a prescription medicine, and also because there are no guarantees that people would get authentic antivirals.

"We don't recommend patients purchase from the Internet, firstly because the medication is prescription only and so should be prescribed by a doctor, and secondly because we can't be certain of the authenticity and integrity of the medicine. Counterfeit medicines are often sold by this route," a Roche spokesperson told ZDNet UK.

The British Medical Association also recommended that people do not buy drugs over the Internet, as the drugs may interact with other medication even if they are authentic.

"We recommend that patients don't purchase drugs online. Prescription drugs need the expertise of a doctor to administer. Drugs might interact with other medication a patient is taking, or with a pre-existing medical condition," said a spokesperson for the BMA. The BMA also recommended that people do not attempt self-diagnosis.

Sophos warned that spammers' motives for sending the email were purely financial.

"It may make a change from receiving junk email about Viagra, but you should never ever buy drugs online, as you could be putting your health in mortal danger. Spammers are not interested in people's health, they're only interested in making fat profits," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

"Drugs like Tamiflu should be prescribed by legitimate doctors, not quacks on the Internet. Buying medicine online, from a Web site advertised by spam email, is like playing Russian roulette," Cluley said.

Tamiflu is in high demand because of fears that the current outbreaks could become a pandemic. Roche have urged people not to rush out and buy the drug.

"Don't panic-buy Tamiflu, there is a pandemic plan in place and the Department of Health have it stockpiled. We would like to stress that there is not actually a pandemic yet, and the risk of one is low," said the Roche spokesperson.