Statin drugs may lower deaths from flu: study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Patients taking statin drugs were almost 50 percent less likely to die from flu, researchers reported on Thursday in a study providing more evidence the cholesterol-lowering drugs help the body cope with infection.

The findings are compelling enough to justify doing controlled studies in which some patients are given the drugs deliberately and some are not, said Meredith Vandermeer of the Oregon Public Health Division, who helped lead the study.

“Our preliminary study shows these cholesterol-lowering medications called statins are associated with a decrease in mortality,” Vandermeer told a news conference at a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“This early research suggests there may be a role for statins in influenza treatment and it should be studied further.”

Vandermeer and a team of researchers, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at the records of 2,800 people who were hospitalized with seasonal influenza in 10 states during the 2007-2008 flu season.

A new strain called H1N1 swine flu is causing a pandemic now but seasonal influenza puts an estimated 200,000 Americans into the hospital every year and kills 36,000. Antiviral drugs can help save their lives but only if given quickly and doctors are searching for other ways to help patients.

Of the patients studied, 801 were taking statins anyway and continued taking them while hospitalized. Seventeen patients who were taking statins died while in the hospital or within a month afterward, compared to 64 who were not taking statins, Vandermeer said.

Overall, 2.1 percent of patients taking statins died, compared to 3.2 percent of patients not taking statins. That means patients taking statins were just under 50 percent less likely to die.

The researchers had to exclude patients who were on mechanical ventilators and unable to take their prescribed statins so the study does not include those cases, Vandermeer said.

Her team is now doing an analysis to find out if one brand of statin is more effective than another.

A few other studies also have suggested that statins may help flu patients by lowering inflammation.

Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response -- a flood of chemicals and cells summoned to fight viral and bacterial invaders. It is also involved in heart and artery disease.

Some flu patients develop a quick and overwhelming inflammatory response to infection and sometimes this can kill them. Doctors are trying to understand why and to find ways to battle this overreaction.

Statin drugs include AstraZeneca’s Crestor, known generically as rosuvastatin, Bristol-Myers Squibb Pravachol or pravastatin and Merck’s Mevacor, or lovastatin.

Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Bill Trott