Doctors may have a new treatment for swine flu that's already on pharmacy shelves — cholesterol-lowering statin drugs like Lipitor and Zocor.
Researchers reported Thursday that people who were already on these drugs when they caught seasonal flu and had to be hospitalized were twice as likely to survive than those not on such medicines.
That's not proof that statins are a cure for flu. More study is under way to see if the drugs might be a good treatment. The study, presented at a medical meeting in Philadelphia, involved 2,800 patients during the 2007-2008 flu season.
"It's very promising," said the study's leader, Dr. Ann Thomas of the Oregon Public Health Division.
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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, an overreaction by the immune system as it fights the virus.
Previous studies also have found that statins may help people survive 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.
Treatment is a crucial issue for swine flu, as the vaccine is slow to reach the public. Flu medicines like Tamiflu are being reserved for only the sickest patients. Statins are cheap, relatively safe and among the most widely used drugs in the world.