Antivirals speed up flu recovery and reduce complications

The antiviral drug oseltamivir reduces the length of illness caused by flu, makes complications less likely, and brings down hospital admissions, a large-scale analysis has found.

Flu: antivirals speed up recovery (Photo: JH Lancy)
Flu: antivirals speed up recovery (Photo: JH Lancy)

The effectiveness of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and other antivirals such as zanamivir (Relenza) has been widely debated, with a Cochrane review published last April reporting that they do not reduce the length of illness.

A National Audit Office report in 2013 questioned huge government spending to stockpile antiviral drugs given doubts over their efficacy - the government spent around £424m between 2006/7 and 2012/13 on Tamiflu.

But the latest research, a meta-analysis published in the Lancet, analysed the ‘totality of trials data’. By weighing up information from nine studies, researchers found that on average, flu symptoms lasted for 98 hours in people using Tamiflu, compared to 123 hours in people taking a placebo.

Hospital admissions from flu were down by 63% and and infections of the lower respiratory tract that required antibiotics were also reduced by 44%, the study said.

However, Tamiflu also caused side effects such as nausea and vomiting in a significant number of people.

Antiviral confusion

In November, PHE said that confusion over efficacy could be preventing doctors from prescribing antivirals to patients who needed them. Doctors ‘should not ignore’ using antivirals to treat severely ill patients, they said.

‘Our meta-analysis provides compelling evidence that oseltamivir therapy reduces by one day the typical length of illness in adults infected with influenza and also prevents complications and reduces the number of people needing hospital treatment,’ the authors of the Lancet study said.

‘Whether the magnitude of these benefits outweigh the harms of nausea and vomiting needs careful consideration.’

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