The world’s largest international police organization has warned of the danger of criminals exploiting the swine flu outbreak through spam emails and websites to sell illegal, unlicensed or fake medicines.

Internet security firms report that around 3%-4% of spam mails currently being circulated are related to swine flu, and this number is expected to increase. Similarly, hundreds of new web pages related to swine flu have been created in the past week, say experts at Interpol, which operates in 187 countries.

“It has been seen time and time again that following a global threat or natural disaster, criminals exploit the situation for their own financial gain and in this situation they are searching to take advantage of people’s fears about their health,” said Jean-Michel Louboutin, executive director of police services at Interpol.

“By responding to spam swine flu emails or attempting to order medication on-line through illegal and unregulated websites, people are risking their wellbeing and their money,” and any unsolicited emails containing deals or links to websites offering swine flu-related information packs or medicines “should be treated with extreme caution,” he warned.

Criminal organizations and individuals involved in the production of counterfeit pharmaceuticals may also attempt to take advantage of the current health situation through the manufacture of fake antiviral drugs, added Mr Louboutin.

“Any product which can be manufactured can be counterfeited, and while there is so far no evidence to suggest that fake antivirals are being manufactured in response to the swine flu outbreak, this is an area which we will continue to monitor in order to identify any cases if or when they emerge,” he said.

National authorities around the world have also issued warnings to the public, with David Pruce, director of policy at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), pointing out that the current fears about swine flu offer a “golden opportunity” for counterfeiters to offer fake supplies of drugs, particularly Roche’s Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza (zanamivir) over the Internet.

The public should not be taken in by spam e-mails offering to supply these antivirals, said Mr Pruce. “Most of the drugs offered in this way turn out to be counterfeit and may contain anything from sugar to more dangerous substances that can seriously put health at risk,” he added.