Flu shots may do more for the elderly than fend off the flu bug: They also protect against heart disease and stroke, new research shows.
Results of a large study of more than 286,000 elderly, appearing in today's New England Journal of Medicine, show hospital stays for heart disease or stroke during two flu seasons were substantially reduced among those who got flu shots.
"Influenza may be even worse than we thought. And flu shots might be even better than we thought," said researcher Kristin Nichol of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
New government figures show influenza contributes to an average 36,000 annual U.S. deaths.
Flu shots are recommended for adults 50 and older. In 2001, about 63 percent of those over 65 were vaccinated in the United States. The flu vaccine reduces deaths overall and prevents pneumonia in the elderly.
The researchers checked medical records for those over 65 enrolled in three managed care plans in the Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and New York City areas during two flu seasons -- 1998-99 and 1999-2000. Of the 140,055 people studied in the first flu season, 56 percent were vaccinated. In the second, 60 percent of the 146,328 enrollees got flu shots.
They compared hospital stays for those who got shots and those who didn't. Flu vaccination cut hospitalizations for heart disease by 19 percent both seasons, the findings showed. Hospital stays for stroke were reduced by 16 percent the first season and 23 percent the second.
China opens province for SARS investigation
BEIJING -- China agreed Wednesday to let international health investigators visit the place where a mystery illness apparently began -- the southern province of Guangdong.
Officials also updated China's death toll by a dozen to 46 as they revealed the illness had spread to other regions and sickened far more than they initially reported.
China's move comes after days of criticism over its secretiveness. Worldwide, at least 78 people have died and more than 2,200 are believed to be sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, the World Health Organization said. It advised travelers to avoid Hong Kong and Guangdong.
Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said Wednesday they have a test to determine whether patients have SARS.
The CDC said it will soon be giving test results in suspected SARS cases to state health officials. The test detects the new form of the coronavirus, which CDC officials say they are 90 percent sure causes SARS.