Getting a flu shot this season may not only lower your risk of influenza, but it may also help protect against heart disease, according to a new review.

Two Toronto-based researchers presented studies at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress that found that the influenza vaccine could be an important treatment for maintaining heart health and warding off cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks.

Dr. Jacob Udell, a cardiologist at Women’s College Hospital and the University of Toronto, and his team from the TIMI Study Group and Network for Innovation in Clinical Research looked at published clinical trials on this subject, dating back to the 1960s.

"For those who had the flu shot, there was a pretty strong reduction,” said Dr. Udell.

The flu vaccine provided an approximate 50 per cent reduction in the risk of a major cardiac event (heart attack, stroke, or cardiac death) compared with placebo after one year of follow-up. A similar trend was seen for the flu vaccine reducing death from any cause (approximately 40 per cent).

The influenza vaccine reduced cardiovascular events and cardiovascular death in people with or without heart disease.

The combined studies examined a total of 3,227 patients, with an almost equal split between patients with and without established heart disease. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive flu vaccine and those that did not typically received a placebo vaccine.

Dr. Udell said these results provide support for current guideline recommendations for influenza vaccination of individuals with a prior heart attack, but for a different reason than simply reducing flu risk. And although it was encouraging to see a reduction in non-fatal cardiac events, he believes a large, lengthier multi-national study would comprehensively demonstrate the vaccine’s effectiveness to reduce fatal cardiac events and save lives.

"A large study that was international in scope and representative of patients such as those in North America and Canada in particular could help answer this question,” he said.

This research could also potentially boost use of the vaccine, which Udell believes is still woefully low.

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