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Warning against buying flu medicines online

BMJ Group News

8th May 2009 -- Medicines being sold as treatments for swine flu by unauthorised internet suppliers could be hazardous to health, the UK drug-safety watchdog has warned. It says there is a risk that medicines not supplied by a registered pharmacy could be substandard or counterfeit.

Online marketing of antiviral medicines is being produced by 'cyber criminals' hoping to profit from the public's fears about swine flu, according to the authorities. INTERPOL, the international police organisation, says that around 4 percent of the billions of spam emails sent every day relate to H1N1 flu (swine flu). Many of these are likely to offer for sale the anti-flu medicines oseltamivirand zanamivir.

Flu prevention tips

The most effective way to slow the spread of flu is to avoid passing along germs. The HPA recommends taking these simple steps:

  • Always wash your hands
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Dispose of used tissues promptly
  • Clean hard surfaces frequently
  • Make sure children follow this advice

See more articles, news and more about the flu in the UK:


The World Health Organization estimates that half the medicines sold by online pharmacies without a physical address are counterfeit. Counterfeit products may contain no medicine, or even be made from harmful chemicals.

What should I do if I think I've been sold counterfeit medicines?

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) monitors drug safety in the UK. If you think you've been given counterfeit medicines, you can call their 24-hour hotline (020 7084 2701). You can also email them (

You should also see your doctor as soon as possible to arrange replacement medicines, if appropriate. If you've been having health problems that you think may be due to taking a counterfeit medicine, make sure you tell your doctor.

Can I buy medicines online safely?

By law, pharmacies in the UK must register with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB). That includes internet pharmacies. You can make sure a pharmacy is registered using the RPSGB's website (

You can also check online pharmacies for the RPSG's registered pharmacy logo, which has a green cross and the pharmacy's registration number.

Any legitimate UK pharmacist will require a doctor's prescription before it will dispense oseltamivir or zanamivir.

How much will medicines help with swine flu?

Flu viruses constantly change. Because swine flu is a new strain, it's hard to say how well treatments will work. Laboratory tests do show that the swine flu virus is sensitive to the two main antiviral medicines, oseltamivir and zanamivir. In previous trials against ordinary, seasonal flu, both oseltamivir and zanamivir shortened people's illness by up to a day. They also reduced people's chances of getting complications such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

You take oseltamivir as a capsule. Zanamivir comes as a type of spray you breathe in. Both can cause side effects. Some people taking oseltamivir feel sick or vomit. Zanamivir can cause diarrhoea.

Will a flu vaccine help?

Flu vaccines are made to protect against a particular strain of flu. The vaccines we have already weren't made to protect against swine flu, so they won't help. Making a completely new flu vaccine can take five to six months.

Scientists are currently working on a swine flu vaccine. Unfortunately, making vaccines is a slow process, as flu viruses have to be grown inside millions of chicken eggs. Manufacturers only have the capacity to make a certain amount of vaccine.

Making large amounts of a swine flu vaccine would mean switching production away from the seasonal flu vaccine. Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people a year. Health officials face a difficult choice between making more doses of seasonal flu vaccine and producing a swine flu vaccine. It's difficult to anticipate which one we'll be needing most in a few months' time.

Published on May 08, 2009

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