Get a Flu Shot, Protect Your Heart

It’s difficult to escape the multimedia call these days for people to get a flu shot. It’s sound advice for virtually everyone older than 6 months, especially young children, older adults and anybody with compromised immune systems or cardiovascular disease. At some health-care facilities, flu shots are compulsory for employees.

It’s not a 100% guarantee, but getting vaccinated is your best shot (sorry) at protecting yourself against a miserable episode of body aches, fever and respiratory issues that can graduate into serious health problems. And now, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a flu vaccination seems to reduce the risk of major adverse cardiovascular problems for people at high risk for heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates of flu-associated death between 1976 and 2007 in the U.S. ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 people. During a typical flu season, about 9 in 10 deaths occur in people 65 years and older.

As described on MedPage Today, the JAMA study was a meta-analysis, or a method using the data from different studies that are contrasted and combined to see if certain patterns emerge. Data for more than 6,700 subjects were used. Their average age was 67, more than 1 in 3 had a history of heart disease.

At the end of the number-crunching, the rate of a heart-related problem in the first year of follow-up was 2.9% for study subjects who had received the flu vaccine, and 4.7% for those who didn’t.

And the benefit of the vaccination seemed to be even greater among subjects a history of acute coronary syndrome (ACS, or any situation in which blood flow to the heart is restricted). ACS can result in chest pain or pressure, neck, jaw or arm pain, dizziness, nausea and sweating.

The study’s authors concluded that “Influenza vaccination may prevent cardiovascular events via avoidance of atherosclerotic plaque rupture or other forms of cardiac injury in a vulnerable patient and represents a simple, once-annual protective therapy to reduce cardiovascular events.”

Given that a flu shot (or other method of vaccination, such as nasal spray, which can be appropriate for healthy people 2 to 49 years old who are not pregnant), is so inexpensive, easily administered, nearly risk-free and generally covered by insurance, you have to wonder why more people don’t take the trouble.

And although “flu season” generally begins in early autumn, and it takes a couple of weeks after administration of the shot for the vaccine to achieve full potency, it’s not too late to be vaccinated-generally, most people fall ill from flu in mid-winter.

Getting vaccinated against the flu is not just something to do for your own self-interest, it’s the responsible thing to do for the protection of the community-you can spread the flu virus before you even have symptoms. Is feeling like you’re been hit by a truck really a sensation you want to share?

As noted in a commentary accompanying the JAMA study by Dr. Kathleen Neuzil (who also holds a Masters degree in public health), “regardless of whether influenza vaccine reduces cardiovascular disease, the known morbidity of influenza in older adults with and without high-risk conditions and the known efficacy of the vaccine warrant its use.”

And if you think a good strategy is to avoid getting vaccinated because antibiotics will help you get over the flu if you get sick, think again. A story on Reuters.com explains that “… many people persist in the mistaken belief that antibacterial drugs – like amoxicillin and azithromycin – are the best treatment for flu. And many doctors simply surrender when patients demand them, ignoring the scientific and medical truth: When treating the flu, antibacterial drugs just don’t work.”

In addition, taking antibiotics can cause harm because you can have an adverse reaction, and because overuse of these drugs creates more powerful, more drug-resistant bugs that makes fighting future infections even more difficult. (See our blog, “CDC Report on Antibiotic Resistance Sounds Ominous Note.”)

To learn more about the flu, link to the CDC’s information site. To find a vaccine provider near you, link here.

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