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Tamiflu spams spread online

March 18, 2006

 
Spammers are exploiting and capitalizing on fears brought on by the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. The emails try and direct you to online pharmacy sites selling Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate), the antiviral prescription drug that is most effective at protecting people against the H5N1 strain of bird flu, but many of these are purely scams to try and get credit card details and other personal information.

As public interest and media coverage of bird flu increases, so does consumer demand for Tamiflu.

Across the country, people appear to be building home stockpiles of the prescription antiviral medicine, according to reports by drugstores, pharmaceutical benefit managers and physicians.

Tamiflu is not a cure for the flu, but it can lessen symptoms if taken shortly after they first appear. A five-day course of two pills a day costs $80 to $90.

Tamiflu, taken as one capsule (75mg) daily for 6-8 weeks, may be 80-90 percent effective in preventing avian influenza, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said.

The run on Tamiflu was apparently spurred by government warnings, here and abroad, that chances for a worldwide flu epidemic are rising, and by news that Southeast Asia's H5N1 bird flu -- the leading candidate for a pandemic -- is moving westward.

For more than a year, demand for the drug, known generically as oseltamivir, has been rising as more than 40 countries began to lay in millions of doses for national stockpiles.

Reports have suggested Tamiflu is already in short supply and spammers are taking advantage of this by mass mailing the product.

Spam urging recipients to protect themselves from bird flu by purchasing Tamiflu online has skyrocketed. Spammers are registering hundreds of new Web domain names for the purpose of sending bird flu related spam.

"Spammers play on the irrational fears of readers. The feeling that buying something will protect you from death often takes precedence over a healthy level of scepticism that should be induced by the fact that it's spam," says Spamhaus, a leader in anti-spam work.

Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that produces Tamiflu, is aware of the Tamiflu spam campaigns, and is warning consumers not to "panic-buy" their products.

The company has warned consumers against purchasing Tamiflu online, saying that it has evidence some of the medication sold on the Internet is fake.

Roche is the only maker of Tamiflu, which takes more than six months to synthesize in a complicated and dangerous manufacturing process.
Last December, federal customs agents have seized more than four dozen shipments of counterfeit Tamiflu pills at a U.S. post office in South San Francisco.

"The packages were in containers that stated they were generic Tamiflu, but there is no generic Tamiflu, so that's a pretty big tip off," said Roxanne Hercules, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, explaining that the local seizures were the first in the nation of a counterfeit form of the drug.

"It's all economics," said Hercules. "People are going to try to make money off whatever they can. We try to anticipate what could be coming down the road."

The counterfeit pills found at the post office in South San Francisco were shipped from China and had been bought over the Internet.

"The product had none of the active ingredients of Tamiflu," Dave Elder, director of the FDA's Office of Enforcement told the Associated Press.

"People are jeopardizing their health and possibly even their life by purchasing prescription drugs such as Tamiflu through websites that advertise using spam," said Ted Green, CEO of Greenview Data. "The risk of receiving counterfeit, spoiled, or even toxic medication is extremely high. Tamiflu, along with all other prescription drugs, should only be prescribed by licensed physicians and purchased from trusted and reputable sources."

A number of countries have reported cases of avian influenza, commonly referred to as "bird flu" in their domestic and wild bird populations. The H5N1 strain of influenza causes severe disease in domesticated fowl.

Human infections with the H5N1 strains are extremely rare -- but frequently fatal. Since late 2003, about 180 people have contracted the disease and nearly 100 have died.

Most of these cases have occurred from direct or close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces; however, a few rare cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus have occurred, though transmission has not continued beyond one person.

Nonetheless, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists fear the H5N1 strain of bird flu could evolve to gain the ability to jump easily from human to human.

All influenza viruses mutate easily, and H5N1 appears to be no exception.

Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population and an influenza pandemic (worldwide outbreak of disease) could begin, resulting in millions of deaths worldwide. Experts from around the world are watching the H5N1 situation in Asia and Europe very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to spread more easily from person to person.

Prior to 2005 every known human case of bird flu had been caused by a particular subtype of the H5N1 virus, which infected people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

But the latest analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a genetically distinct variant which appears to have emerged last year, infecting people in Indonesia.

Researcher Dr Rebecca Garten said: "As the virus continues its geographic expansion, it is also undergoing genetic diversity expansion.

"Back in 2003 we only had one genetically distinct population of H5N1 with the potential to cause a human pandemic. Now we have two."

Professor Hugh Pennington, a microbiologist at Aberdeen University, said flu viruses were expert at evolving rapidly to exploit new opportunities.

He said it was possible that either of the two subtypes could gain the ability to jump from person to person.

Science may have under-estimated the ability of H5N1 to spread across large areas of the world in the way that it has already done, he said.

"But no need to panic. The virus is still a bird virus, it is not yet a human virus, and it may never be a human virus.

"As long as we manage to keep it reasonably under control in the birds I think we can breathe relatively easily for at least a year or two."

A specific vaccine for humans that is effective in preventing avian influenza is not yet readily available.

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