Dec. 14, 2011— -- Statins may reduce the risk of death for patients who have been hospitalized for influenza, according to a new study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Researchers from the Oregon Public Health Division analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Emerging Infections Program. The data came from more than 3,000 adult patients who were hospitalized with influenza between 2007 and 2008. One-third of the patients were either already on statins or given statins in the hospitals. After adjusting for confounding factors, including age, race and heart and lung disease, researchers found that patients who did not take statins were twice as likely to die from influenza than those who received statins.
"Statins are a promising area for further research since the association showed statins decreased odds of dying," said Meredith Vandermeer, a research analyst with Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.
Flu treatments are limited to immunization and antiviral medications, but researchers said statins might be one more tool in the arsenal to treat the virus that affects about 10 percent of the U.S. population each flu season.
While past studies have found a similar link between statins, flu and death, Vandermeer said this is the first observation study to analyze medical administrative records that had better disease endpoints, and in turn, to collect data at a better level.
"The most likely explanation is that the healthier and more health-conscious patients were more likely on statins and that this was an association and not causal," said Dr. Carl Lavie, a professor of medicine at Ochsner Clinical School in New Orleans. "I doubt that many will start treating the flu with statins. I hope that maybe some that should have been on statins for definite indications maybe would get started due to the press about this topic, but I see no reason to start statins for the flu if the lipids are already good and CV risk is low."
But Cam Patterson, distinguished professor of cardiovascular medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that in theory, statins may help the viral process, because they do a lot more than just lower cholesterol levels.
"They reduce inflammation that may be triggered by the influenza virus," said Patterson. "This may lead to less tissue damage from the virus, making it easier for patients to recover from severe bouts of the flu."
But before anyone start recommending statins to treat flu, experts said a randomized clinical trial is needed, where patients with influenza would be treated with a statin versus a placebo.
"We can't recommend statins for patients with the flu based on this study, and it is important to emphasize that this study doesn't say anything about statins preventing people from getting the flu in the first place," said Patterson. "But studies like this one make a strong case for a randomized clinical trial to test whether we should be giving statins to every patient who is hospitalized with influenza."