Flu vaccine may help protect against heart attack, stroke

People who are at risk for being hospitalized for, or dying from, a heart attack or stroke can significantly reduce that risk with a yearly flu vaccination, according to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Benefits of the vaccine were most pronounced in people at the highest risk for such cardiovascular events.

The study’s lead author called the findings “very provocative.”

“Only about 50 percent of the general public actually get their seasonal flu vaccine, for a myriad of reasons,” said Jacob A. nbsp;Udell, MD, of the University of Toronto.

He said he hoped the findings can convince people of the importance of influenza vaccination—for keeping the flu at bay as well as for other health issues.

 

About the study

Researchers gathered information from previous randomized clinical trials that focused on people at risk for heart attacks, unstable angina, stroke, heart failure, blood clots and heart arrhythmias and the effect of flu vaccination or a placebo.

The authors reviewed six studies involving a total of 6,735 patients. The average age was 67, and more than a third of the people had a history of serious heart problems.

Some of the findings:

  • In five studies, 4.7 percent of people who did not get a flu vaccine developed a major heart problem within one year, compared to 2.9 percent of those who were vaccinated.
  • Among people with a recent history of heart disease, the risk for a serious cardiovascular event within a year was 23.1 percent without vaccination, compared to 10.3 percent for those who were vaccinated.
The take-home message
Previous studies have suggested that seasonal flu-like (respiratory) illnesses can trigger cardiovascular problems—particularly in people with previously stable vascular disease, the authors noted. It’s not clear why this is true, they wrote. It’s possible that the viral infection triggers a rupture of plaque buildup in the arteries, causing a clot. Infection in the lungs may add to fluid buildup that worsens heart failure.

The authors urged further research with a large-scale clinical trial to confirm whether something as inexpensive and safe as a yearly flu shot could indeed be a significant part of treatment for this high-risk population.

“This finding has considerable clinical and health policy importance, given the profound underuse of vaccination among the general public and the potential impact this preventive strategy may have on high-risk patients,” they concluded.

What should you know about the flu season? Visit the Flu health topic center.

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