A spoof email claiming bird flu is killing people across Sussex has caused panic.

The hoax contains a link to a fake BBC News internet page, with the headline "Government denies human outbreak of bird flu in Sussex".

It reports how, over the past three weeks, hospitals and GP surgeries have been inundated with people suffering flu-like symptoms.

It reads: "There have already been 15 deaths in as little as three weeks that are directly associated with this killer bug and, while most of them have been elderly people, at least three were otherwise fit and healthy professionals in their 20s and 30s."

Julie Boucher, 30, of Baden Road, Brighton, contacted The Argus after receiving the email.

The mother of three said: "It really frightened me, as myself and my children have had these exact symptoms for over a week now.

"One of my friends, whose daughter was sent it via MySpace, called the doctor for fear of having contracted the condition."

The man behind the site is Larry Pickleman, a fictional character created by Brighton online animator Dave Watson, 37. Mr Watson told The Argus: "I've had several people coming back to me, some in tears."

He said the hoax, the second he has based on the BBC News site, was a way of making people take a "second look", citing the internet film Loose Change, which claims 9/11 was a Government conspiracy, as an example of people being drawn into believing things that are not true.

Angela Iversen, of the Health Protection Agency, said there was no change in the "pandemic flu alert status level 3", where there is limited transmission between humans.

She said: "We are not aware of any cases in Brighton and Hove."

A BBC spokeswoman said the corporation took copyright infringement seriously and would be contacting the site's owner.