LONDON - British researchers say there is little evidence Tamiflu stops complications in healthy people who catch the flu, though public-health officials contend the swine flu drug reduces flu hospitalizations and deaths.
Researchers at the Cochrane Review, an international nonprofit that reviews health information, looked at previously published papers on Tamiflu as used for seasonal flu. They found insufficient data to prove whether the antiviral reduces complications like pneumonia in otherwise healthy people but concluded the drug shortens flu symptoms by about a day. The papers were published online yesterday in the British journal, BMJ.
The researchers said that the benefits of Tamiflu were small and that authorities should consider its side effects before using the drug in healthy people. While the reviewed studies only looked at Tamiflu use for seasonal flu, the experts said their conclusions raised questions about the widespread use of the drug in people with any flulike illness, including swine flu.
Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor, said the papers cast doubt not only on how safe and effective Tamiflu is, but on the drug regulatory system that approved it. "Governments around the world have spent billions of pounds on a drug that the scientific community now finds itself unable to judge," she said in a statement.
But the World Health Organization disagreed. They said data from countries around the world show that when given early, Tamiflu can reduce the severity of swine flu symptoms, though the agency recommends the drug be saved for people at risk of complications, like pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with underlying medical problems.
"This will not change our guidelines," said Charles Penn, a WHO antivirals expert. Penn said that while past studies showed Tamiflu only had a modest benefit, when patients with severe illness or at risk of complications were treated early, there are fewer hospitalizations and deaths.
Both the British researchers and WHO said there was little evidence to support the widespread use of Tamiflu in otherwise healthy people - precisely the policy Britain has adopted to fight swine flu.
In addition to recommending Tamiflu be saved for at-risk groups, WHO recommends Tamiflu only be used on a doctor's recommendation.
In Britain, however, Tamiflu is regularly dispensed to healthy people who catch the flu. The drug is given out via a national swine flu hotline by call-center workers with no medical training.
One lesson to be drawn from the brouhaha: It probably doesn't hurt to treat patients who have severe flu complications with Tamiflu, and it may help. But the drug should not be used to prevent infection in people who have been exposed to the virus or have mild infections.