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Improving Flu Vaccine Take-up to Reduce Risk of Heart Attack

Research led by a University of Lincoln academic has found that patients who have the seasonal influenza vaccine could reduce their risk of having a heart attack by up to a fifth. Yet vaccination uptake rates consistently fail to meet targets. Work by Professor Niroshan Siriwardena and his team is changing this, and altering the way the medical profession and public perceive the threat from the flu virus, helping doctors improve uptake of the seasonal vaccine.

Seasonal influenza is directly responsible for around 12,000 deaths each year in the UK. People aged over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or diabetes are particularly prone to developing complications from flu, such as pneumonia; but the link between influenza and heart attack or stroke following flu is less well understood.

Many flu-related deaths are preventable as a safe, effective flu vaccination is offered by the NHS to eligible people at the start of the flu season each year. The vaccine must be given anew every year, because the flu virus constantly evolves and new strains emerge.

With funding totalling almost £250,000 from the National Institute of Health Research, the work of Professor Niroshan Siriwardena and colleagues in Lincoln’s School of Health and Social Care has helped to transform the way the medical profession and the public view the risks and the necessary response to the threat from flu complications.

For almost a decade, the University’s Community and Health Research Unit has worked closely with GPs, practice nurses and other primary care professionals to find the best strategies for increasing uptake of the seasonal flu vaccine.

They have identified common obstacles that prevent at-risk groups getting the jab and devised new campaigns to bring them on board. An educational outreach programme was developed to share the best examples in medical practices.

The effects were profound. In a localised study involving 32 practices in one primary care trust area, flu vaccinations among over-65s increased by almost a quarter. Subsequent studies in other parts of the country showed similar impact.

The research of Professor Siriwardena and his colleagues has raised public awareness, not just in the UK but across the world, of the importance of the seasonal flu vaccine in preventing complications such as heart attacks.

"The work has had impact on front line practice in terms of directly improving flu and pneumococcal vaccination rates in general practices, particularly in Lincolnshire."

Diseases of the cardiovascular system are the biggest cause of premature death in developed countries, accounting for one in three deaths in the UK. Many researchers believe the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke is increased when people are suffering from respiratory infection, such as flu.

One of the team’s studies, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2010, indicated that having the seasonal flu vaccine could reduce people’s chances of suffering a first heart attack by a fifth.

The findings, which were reported in the media around the world, underlined the importance of people in at-risk groups getting the vaccine. Uptake among over-65s and other at-risk groups in the UK has continued to increase.

Further research by the team at Lincoln includes a large case-control study investigating the potential for influenza and pneumococcal vaccination to reduce the risk of stroke, funded by the National Institute of Health Research.