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SUNDAY, Oct. 28, 2012 — By now you probably know the influenza vaccine is your best bet for getting through the fall and winter flu-free. But for some people, the flu shot can offer an additional health perk.
Research presented today at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto suggests the influenza vaccine can prevent strokes and heart attacks in people with or without heart disease.
The flu vaccine lowered risk of major cardiac events (like heart attacks, strokes, or cardiac deaths) by 50 percent compared to a placebo after a one-year period, found a review of published clinical trials dating as far back as the 1960s. Lead study author Jacob Udell, MD, a cardiologist at Women's College Hospital and the University of Toronto, and his team, also noted a similar lower risk for all-cause death, by about 40 percent.
While Dr. Udell thinks a larger study could further demonstrate the flu shot's benefits for heart health, according to a release from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he said the results support current recommendations for influenza vaccination of people who have had heart attacks.
These are important data which confirm and extend previous observations, says William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
"When you think about it, the influenza vaccine is the biggest bargain in prevention and in all of medicine," he says.
Dr. Schaffner didn't work on the study, but as the immediate past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), he is enthusiastic about the findings.
"It's not generally well known among physicians or the general public that influenza vaccines extend beyond preventing just influenza, so I find it exciting that these data are out there," he says. While Schaffner can't say for sure why more doctors don't know the importance of the flu vaccine for heart health, he says we tend to compartmentalize when we think about flu vaccine. It does its job, which is to prevent flu, so we stop there.Data suggesting lower risks of cardiac events are scattered throughout literature, and "no one has brought them together in such strong fashion."
The way it works is a bit speculative, says Schaffner, but if you've ever had the flu you know you know it's nothing to sneeze at.
"It's not well-recognized that the flu is a systemic illness. It doesn't just affect the lung," he says. "When such a severe illness occurs a number of the body's other organ systems also are adversely affected."
He suspects the influenza vaccine, by preventing the flu, prevent these other associated adverse events.
"If no other group, cardiologists should make sure their patients are well-vaccinated against influenza each and every year," Schaffner says. "In general if these findings were better known among the profession, they would make all doctors even more enthusiastic about promoting influenza vaccine for all patients."
In addition to the flu shot, Schaffner recommends people at risk of heart disease and stroke get the pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia, a complication of flu.