Study proves flu shot safe for asthmatics

November 28, 2001

Asthmatics can now breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to results from the first-ever study to confirm the safety of flu shots for patients with asthma. Conducted at 19 American Lung Association (ALA) Asthma Clinical Research Centers (ACRC) across the country, including the ALA Asthma Clinical Research Center at the University of Vermont, the study alleviates previous concerns about possible dangerous side effects of the flu shot in people with asthma.

The new study, which appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, has important health implications, because influenza is responsible for substantial illness in both children and adults with asthma. Study author Charles Irvin, director of the ALA ACRC at the University of Vermont, and ALA of Vermont executive director Robert Uerz urge children and adults with asthma who haven't already received a flu vaccine this year to get one immediately.

"This study has proven definitively that the flu shot does not trigger asthma attacks - even in the worst of asthmatics," said Irvin. "Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of people with asthma in this country currently get a flu shot, in part because they have been afraid it would adversely affect their asthma."

The study, titled "Safety of Inactivated Influenza Vaccine in Children and Adults with Asthma," included 2,032 children and adults who were diagnosed with moderate to severe asthma. Patients were randomly assigned to receive the actual flu shot or a placebo injection that did not contain the flu vaccine. The two groups switched mid-study so that all participants had received the real flu vaccine by the end of the study.

The ALA's newly organized ACRC network funded the study. The 19 centers, funded by 23 local Lung Associations, were coordinated by the ALA-American Thoracic Society/Merck Asthma Clinical Research Data Coordinating Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"This study demonstrated that the network was able to develop a practical, large clinical trial to provide important information about asthma that will benefit patients directly," Uerz said.

An estimated 26 million Americans - including 8.6 million children - have been diagnosed with asthma. In Vermont, approximately 23,000 people suffer from asthma, 7,500 of which are children. Viral respiratory infections, such as the flu, may cause asthma episodes in people of all ages and are believed to be the cause of 80 - 85 percent of asthma episodes in children. Data from the study shows that viral infections are the number-one trigger of asthma attacks in children and the second most common cause of asthma attacks in adults.

The health care costs associated with the hospitalization of asthmatics that develop complications due to influenza are substantial. Hospitalization rates for people with high-risk conditions such as asthma increase two- to five-fold during major flu epidemics. Annually, influenza accounts for 192 million days spent in bed, 70 million lost working days and 346 million days of restricted activity.

Irvin has launched a brand-new asthma research study, which will test the effectiveness of Theophylline - a pill-form asthma drug that in generic form, is expected to cost only 1/5 what the current leading asthma medications cost. Theophylline has been in use for over 60 years. The study will investigate its effectiveness when administered in low doses.
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The ALA ACRC at the University of Vermont is the only ACRC in New England and the only center serving a rural population. For more information about asthma and influenza, call the ALA at 1-800-LUNG-USA, or visit the ALA web site at http://www.lungusa.org

University of Vermont

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