Study: Cholesterol drugs help treat flu

A new treatment for swine flu may already be on pharmacy shelves — cholesterol-lowering statin drugs such as Lipitor and Zocor.

A large study found that people who were taking these drugs when they caught seasonal flu and had to be hospitalized were twice as likely to survive than those who were not on such medicines.

This doesn't prove that statins can cure flu, or that starting on them after catching the flu would help. A federal study is under way now to test that.

Doctors are optimistic, because previous studies also found that statins may improve survival from infectious diseases.

"It's very promising," said the new study's leader, Ann Thomas of the Oregon Public Health Division. Results were discussed Thursday at an Infectious Diseases Society of America conference in Philadelphia.

"It's intriguing and exciting," and the benefit seen from statins is "substantial," said William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University doctor whose hospital in Nashville, Tenn., was involved in the research.

"There are relatively few downsides to trying statins," which are cheap, relatively safe, and already among the most widely used medicines in the world, he said.

Treatment is a crucial issue for swine flu because vaccine has been slow to reach the public, and flu medicines like Tamiflu are being reserved for only the sickest patients.

Statins have long been known to reduce inflammation along with cholesterol. Much of the damage that flu causes, whether it's seasonal or the new H1N1 virus, is from inflammation and an overreaction by the immune system as it fights the virus.

Earlier studies found that statins improved survival from pneumonia and serious bacterial bloodstream infections. The new research, sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the first large one in the United States to look at statins for flu.

It involved 2,800 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed seasonal flu in 10 states in 2007-08. Medical records show that 801 received statins in the hospital. They probably were just continuing the cholesterol treatment they had been taking before catching the flu, though researchers don't know this for sure.