Flu vaccinations appear less effective for people taking statins

Two studies find cholesterol-lowering drug impairs immune system’s ability to tackle flu virus

Vaccination against flu appears to be less effective in people who take statins, according to two new studies.

The drugs, to lower cholesterol in people at risk of heart disease, are widely prescribed by GPs. Many taking them will be over 65 and offered a flu jab as the winter approaches. But the studies, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, suggest that they may not be well protected.

The research suggests that statins impair the ability of the body’s immune system to fight off flu, leaving older adults vulnerable to the virus. If the results are confirmed by further research, the authors say there may have to be changes in the recommendations around flu vaccination – possibly a stronger vaccine dose or for people to stop taking the pills around the time it is given.

One of the studies looked back at the data from clinical trials of the flu vaccine between 2009 and 2011, which involved around 7,000 adults over the age of 65 in four countries. It looked at the antibodies to the flu virus in the blood of those who had been vaccinated and found people on statins mounted a less effective response.

The other study, from Emory University in the US, looked at data on those who became ill during nine flu seasons, involving 140,000 people in the state of Georgia. They found signals that those on statins suffered from more severe illness than those who were not.

Experts advise people to continue to take statins if needed, and get a flu shot until more research has been done. Prof Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said that as the researchers themselves point out, “their findings are far from conclusive and merely point to a possible issue that needs further research”.

He said: “No one who is planning to have a flu vaccination this winter should stop taking their statin on the basis of these studies. Indeed, patients with heart disease are at greater risk of a heart attack if they catch flu and therefore need the protection of their statin.

“It is important that patients with heart disease should be vaccinated against flu and continue to take all of their medication.”

There are around 7 million people on statins in the UK. Not all of them will be eligible for a flu jab, which is for the over-65s and those who are frail or have other medical conditions.

Sotiris Antoniou, spokesperson on cardiovascular medicine for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said statins were known to have an effect on the immune system. But he added: We must recognise that the findings of a reduced effect of the flu jab may be due to other things as the original study was not set out to assess the impact of statins on the effectiveness of vaccines.

“There’s good evidence to show taking statins protects your health. Until more research is done to answer the question of a potential interaction between statins and the jab and the implications of the vaccine having a reduced effect, you should go on taking your statins as normal. The protection they offer your cardiovascular system are significant, so don’t stop them without talking to a health professional.”

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said those on statins in the studies may possibly have been in poorer health than others.

There is now sufficient evidence from these two large studies to prompt further investigation, and the consideration of routine use of improved influenza vaccines in older adults, especially those taking statins.”

Contributor

Sarah Boseley Health editor

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