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Cholesterol Drugs May Help Prevent Flu Deaths

But expert says it could be that statins protect heart during infection

THURSDAY, Oct. 29, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Statins, frequently used to cut cholesterol levels, may also help prevent death from severe flu, a new study suggests.

According to the researchers, a growing body of evidence suggests that statins -- which include medicines such as Lipitor, Crestor and Zocor -- can reduce death from severe infections. Whether they help with flu, however, has been more uncertain.

"Statins may have a role in reducing mortality from influenza, but our findings do not justify broader use of statins without confirming these findings in the setting of randomized controlled trials," said study author Dr. Ann R. Thomas, from the Emerging Infections Program at the Oregon Department of Human Services Public Health Division in Portland.

"Statins may have a benefit, in conjunction with vaccine and antivirals, in reducing morbidity and mortality associated with influenza, likely due to their effect of reducing the body's inflammatory response to influenza infection," she added.

The results of the study are to be presented Friday at the Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting in Philadelphia.

For the study, Thomas' team looked at the outcomes of hospitalized influenza patients over two flu seasons.

The researchers found that patients who were taking statins were more likely to be older, male, white or Asian with underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. In addition, they were more likely to have had a flu shot.

While those with cardiovascular disease were more likely to die, those who received statins while in the hospital were less likely to die.

Whether statins are also effective in preventing deaths from the H1N1 swine flu is not known, Thomas said. "Our data are from the 2007-2008 influenza season, well before novel H1N1 emerged, so no one knows for sure if statins would reduce mortality from H1N1," she said.

"However, since the likely mechanism of statins in reducing mortality is their general effect of down-regulating the immune system, it is plausible that statins might be useful in treating influenza infections due to novel H1N1," she noted.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City, said that the study "is of limited value."

Siegel believes it's statins' ability to prevent death from heart disease and not any benefit against flu that results in fewer deaths among those taking these drugs.

"Influenza increases your risk of dying from heart disease. At the same time, statins reduce your risk of dying from heart disease. So, it's not surprising to find that there are fewer deaths among those taking statins," Siegel said.

"You can't conclude from this study that people with influenza should take statins," he said. "Statins are protective in a situation where the heart is at risk, even influenza -- that, I'll buy."

More information

For more information on flu, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Ann R. Thomas, M.D., M.P.H., Emerging Infections Program, Oregon Department of Human Services Public Health Division, Portland; Marc Siegel, M.D., associate professor, medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York City, and author, Swine Flu: The New Pandemic; Oct. 29, 2009, presentation, Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting, Philadelphia
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