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Study: Early Treatment for Severe Flu Dramatically Reduces Risk of Death

  • Jessica Berman

Packages of the medicine Tamiflu by Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche.

Packages of the medicine Tamiflu by Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche.

A new study has found that adults who were treated early with the drug Tamiflu during the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza pandemic were 25 percent more likely to survive the illness compared to those who were also gravely ill but received no treatment. Researchers say the message is that those with severe symptoms should be treated promptly.

Investigators led by Jonathan Nguyen-Van-Tam of Britain's University of Nottingham analyzed data involving more than 29,000 people from around the world.

They found that patients stricken with H1N1 during the flu pandemic more than four years ago were much more likely to survive if they received Tamiflu or drugs in the same class within two days of severe symptom onset.

In a study published in the journal The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, the researchers report those treated within the first 48 hours cut their risk of death in half compared with those who received later treatment or no treatment at all. Even those patients who waited longer for medicine saw a benefit - lowering their risk by 19 percent on average.

Nguyen-Van-Tam, a professor of Health Protection, says the study’s message to doctors is - don’t wait for test results to treat patients they suspect are sick with a life-threatening influenza virus.

“There’s no magic number here. And that you really shouldn’t go, 'I’m sorry madam or I’m sorry sir. You’ve presented to me two-and-a-half days after symptom onset and therefore it’s futile my treating you.' What our data is (are) saying is the reduction in death is less than if you were treated early. But it’s not meaningless, and there is still value in treating the severely ill patient," he said.

Nguyen-Van-Tam says a big challenge is getting patients to seek treatment as soon as they become ill.

“Patient behavior is around, 'Well, let me see if I’m going to get better or not.' So, we looked at treatment within two days as the kind of baseline, the reference. And then we looked at treatment within three days, four and five. And you can see that with each passing day of delay, there is a reduction in the effect [benefit] you get.”

In the case of the 2009-2010 flu pandemic, a sizable percent of those who died were young adults who might not have realized the respiratory illness could be fatal.
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