Sammy Nickalls
October 29, 2015 11:42 am

After a long, hot summer, the weather is finally starting to get chillier. But with the colder months comes the start of flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu season can start as early as October and last as late as May. That’s why thousands flock to their local pharmacy or doctor’s office to get the flu vaccine shot and stay protected all year long. However, one of the best-selling prescription drugs may actually change how your body responds to the vaccine, according to recent research.

According to two papers published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers found that those taking statins, popular cholesterol-lowering drugs, may be more desensitized to the vaccine and are more likely to contract the flu. This is particularly grave news when one considers that the elderly, who are more likely to take statins, are also more in danger than any other group for flu-related deaths, according to the CDC.

In the first study, professor of pediatrics at the Center for Global Health Dr. Steven Black and his team looked at data of over 5,000 people aged over 65 who took a flu vaccine between 2009 and 2011. The researchers found that statin-users produced from 30% to 60% fewer flu antibodies about three weeks after taking the vaccine.

“Apparently, statins interfere with the response to influenza vaccine and lower the immune response, and this would seem to also result in a lower effectiveness of influenza vaccines,” said Black.

In the second paper, Emory University’s Saad Omer and his team studied across nine flu seasons rates of respiratory infection — a common symptom of the flu — in a managed care group in Georgia. The vaccine was effective in 12.6% of statin users — less than half of non-statin users (26.2%).

“Our findings may explain only partially why a flu vaccine is somewhat less than perfect in the elderly,” said Omer. “There are several other reasons and one of them being that our immune system becomes somewhat less effective as we age. So that’s one chunk of factors that may influence less than optimal responses in the elderly associated with flu vaccine.”

The research serves as an indication that more research must be done on how to protect older patients on statins from the flu. However, experts highly recommend that those in this category continue to take their statins and get the flu shot. “We know statins improve survival in people with [high cholesterol] and heart disease, so they should be taken,” said Dr. Robert Atmar, professor of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, in an editorial accompanying the studies. “We know that flu vaccines decrease the risk of influenza and complications from influenza infection and should be taken.”

As scientists research this important issue, there are now high-dose flu vaccines available for those over 65.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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