Findings published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases show that statins, one of the most widely sold drugs today, that are more commonly used for combating high cholesterol levels, may have a new use in helping fight influenza in critically ill patients.

Influenza is usually dealt with, initially by vaccine to prevent infection from occuring in the first place, and once the patient is ill, by prescribing antiviral drugs. For example, Tamiflu from Roche received a lot of media attention during the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic.

Among 3,043 hospitalized patients with laboratory-confirmed influenza, 33 percent were given statin medications prior to or during hospitalization. After adjusting for various factors, patients not receiving statins were almost twice as likely to die from influenza as those who did receive the medication. The study authors write :

“Our study found that statins were associated with a decrease in odds of dying among cases hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza, when adjusted for age, race, cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease, renal disease, influenza vaccine receipt, and initiation of antivirals within 48 hours of admission.”

The research was conducted by L. Vandermeer, MPH, then with the Oregon Public Health Division in Portland, using data for hospitalized adults during the 2007-2008 influenza season. Researchers evaluated the association between patients prescribed statins and influenza-related deaths. The data was drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infections Program, which conducts active surveillance for patients hospitalized with confirmed influenza in 59 counties in 10 states.

The study was only observational, so the authors note that there may have been additional factors that were not taken into account. Researchers did not attempt to track the amount of statin use by patients during their entire hospital stay. They say that randomized controlled trials would be needed to fully clarify the potential benefits of statins for influenza treatment.

The researchers would also like to look at dose response and specifically in younger patients, since statins, being anti-high cholesterol drugs, are mainly used on older patients with heart disease, high blood pressure or confirmed high cholesterol problems. It would also be necessary to trial different classes of statins to identify the drug that has the best effects.

In an accompanying editorial, Edward E. Walsh, MD, of the Infectious Diseases Division at Rochester General Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., noted that there have been previous observational studies suggesting statins may reduce mortality from influenza and pneumonia. Walsh added :

“One of the important strengths of the current study … is that only patients with laboratory-confirmed influenza were included in the analysis.”

It seems that further research is needed to quantify and classify the use of statins against influenza, but so far the results look like promising news with the 2011-2012 flu season now under way.

Written by Rupert Shepherd