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Flu Vaccine Safe for People With Asthma

Largest study finds no adverse reactions

MONDAY, Nov. 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The fear that the influenza vaccine might trigger an acute asthma episode, especially in children, is unfounded, say researchers involved in what they call the largest, most carefully controlled study ever done.

The study, which compared symptoms in 2,032 asthma patients, ages 3 to 64, who were given either the vaccine or a placebo found no such reaction, says a report in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"In every way we looked at the data, we found that the vaccine is safe," says Dr. Mario Castro, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and a member of the American Lung Association Asthma Clinical Research Centers, which did the study. "Severe versus mild asthma, different races and ethnic groups, children vs. adults -- in every category we looked at, there was no difference between vaccine vs. placebo."

The study was necessary because "we know that less than 10 percent of persons with asthma were getting the vaccine, and we knew that something was behind it," Castro says. "When we asked patients and physicians, we found it was primarily because of fear the vaccine would cause adverse reactions in persons with asthma."

The finding answers one question asked by many physicians: whether persons with asthma need some special treatment before they get a flu shot? The answer is no, says Dr. Linda B. Ford, assistant professor of medicine at Creighton University. She also is a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and a past president of the American Lung Association.

"We are reassured that when we give the vaccine, it is not going to be harmful. We don't have to give any medication in advance," Ford says.

Only about 10 percent of Americans with asthma have been getting flu shots, says a statement by Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a scientific consultant for the American Lung Association. If the vaccination rate increases to 50 percent, he says more than 40 percent of flu-triggered asthma attacks would be prevented.

Fear of bioterrorism caused by the World Trade Center attack adds another reason for flu vaccination, Edelman's statement says. The early symptoms of flu can trigger fears of anthrax, so preventing those symptoms with a flu shot can reduce the possibility of panic, he says.

And the flu vaccine can help prevent asthma episodes, Edelman's statement says. Viral infections such as the flu cause an estimated 80 percent of asthma episodes in children, and a flu attack can cause a persistent decline in lung function, he says.

Now is "the prime time" to get a flu shot, Castro says. "The flu usually does not start hitting until December, and it takes one to two weeks to develop a response to the vaccine," he says.

What To Do

Check with your family doctor, local health department or community hospital about getting a flu shot before the season hits.

For information about asthma and influenza, go to the American Lung Association. You can learn about flu and the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Interviews with Mario Castro, assistant professor of medicine, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis; Linda B. Ford, assistant professor of medicine, Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.; Nov. 22, 2001, The New England Journal of Medicine
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