If you suffer from heart disease, get vaccinated against the flu -- now.

That’s the message from doctors who found that people with a buildup of plaque in their arteries are about two-thirds less likely to die, have a heart attack, or need emergency bypass or angioplasty if they get the vaccinated than if they don’t.

Andrzej Ciszewski, MD, of the Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw, Poland, presented the findings here at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Of the thousands of presentations at the meeting, this was one of the most important, says AHA president Ray Gibbons MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Gibbons notes that only one in three adults with heart disease was vaccinated against the flu in 2005, even though people with heart disease are more likely to die from influenza than patients with any other chronic condition.

Overall, the flu is responsible for 36,000 deaths and 225,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year.

People with cardiovascular disease are particularly vulnerable, Gibbons says, because the flu can exacerbate heart disease symptoms and can lead to conditions like viral or bacterial pneumonia that cause heart disease flare-ups.

“A bout of flu tends to make people with heart disease even sicker and increase the chance of having to go to the emergency room or hospital,” he tells WebMD.

Benefits of Annual Vaccinations

With evidence growing that annual vaccination helps protect against life-threatening cardiovascular events in people with heart disease, both the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend an annual flu vaccination for people with heart disease.

While September through November is the best time to get vaccinated, even getting vaccinated in January or later can ward off illness, since influenza commonly peaks in January through March.

The vaccine takes about two weeks to work and last year’s model will not protect against this year’s strain.

In the new study, 658 people who had recently undergone angioplasty to open up clogged arteries were randomly assigned to receive either the flu vaccine or a placebo vaccine.

By about a year later, 16 people (5 percent) who got the flu vaccine had died, had a heart attack, been hospitalized for heart disease, or needed emergency bypass or angioplasty.

That compared with 30 people (9.0 percent) who got the placebo.

By Charlene Laino, reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2006, Nov. 12-15, 2006, Chicago. Andrzej Ciszewski, MD, Institute of Cardiology, Warsaw, Poland. Ray Gibbons, MD, AHA president; professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.