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Researchers Find Clue Linking Flu, Heart Problems

B.K. Morris gives Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar a flu shot to during a news conference in Washington, Sept. 26, 2019. Health officials urged Americans not to delay getting their flu shot.

Researchers at The Ohio State University College of Medicine have identified a potential explanation for why flu causes life-threatening heart issues and who may be at risk

The flu season has started in the Northern Hemisphere. Although it’s still very early in the season, two deaths have been reported. One was a child, the other an adult with a chronic illness, but seemingly healthy people can also die from the flu.

Those most likely to die from the flu are the very young and the very old. But seemingly healthy people die as well.

Jen Ludwin was one of those seemingly healthy people when she caught the virus. She was young — 23 years old with no underlying conditions.

“I figured, ‘You know what, I’ll spend seven days in bed and just fight it off and I’d be OK.’ But I was totally wrong,” she said.

Ludwin’s organs to begin to fail.

“I was already in septic shock, and that my organs were starting to fail,” she said. “On top of that I had ARDS, which is a respiratory distress syndrome, and then DIC, which caused me to bleed internally and clot in my extremities. And all of those complications together led to gangrene in my limbs, and so I became an amputee.”

Dr. Eric Adkins at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center says when a virus attacks the body, it’s like an all-out war.

“The body’s response to infection is basically a big inflammatory response that can cause all kinds of problems in the various organs,” he said.

A clue in a protein

It’s a mystery why otherwise healthy people have severe complications from the flu. But researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine uncovered a clue. Jacob Yount specializes in the study of microbial infection at Ohio State. He says the researchers found a link between a heart complication as a result of getting the flu and a protein that’s critical to fighting it.

“We make this protein and it inhibits viruses from entering our cells,” he said.

But, Yount says, some people have a genetic mutation that blocks the production of that protein, and without it, the flu is more likely to infect the heart and lead to heart failure.

“It can actually block the electrical current that’s traveling through the heart,” he said.

The study found that the mice without this gene were more likely to have heart complications after being infected with the flu virus. Adkins says this finding may help doctors care for flu patients in the future.

“If you know that they’re missing the gene ahead of time, then you may tailor your medical therapy differently,” he said.

Millions affected

The researchers say that millions of people worldwide are likely to have this genetic mutation, including about one-fifth of those of Chinese descent.

Now that scientists understand what might be causing the problem, they are searching for treatments that might prevent or reverse these heart complications in the future. Right now, though, the best protection is getting a flu shot.