US: Fight the flu - get an education

American researchers have come up with a new, and rather compelling, reason to get an education - it can protect you from illnesses such as swine flu. A University of Michigan study has found that people who did not earn a high school diploma are not only more likely to get illnesses but may also find vaccines less effective compared with those who did graduate with a diploma.

The conclusion is based on a study of a virus called CMV among young people. CMV is a common virus that is not cleared from the body but remains in a latent state and sometimes reactivates. Most people's bodies keep it under control but in those who don't, resistance to new diseases such as H1N1 and the effect of vaccines are reduced.

Previous studies had found that elderly people with less education were less successful at fighting off CMV but the University of Michigan study was the first known research to make that connection in younger adults as well, said study co-author Jennifer Dowd.

"We're showing that the ability to keep CMV under control varies by income and education even at much younger ages, and this could have implications for the ability to fight new infections like H1N1 for all ages, not just the elderly," said Dowd, now an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Hunter College.

In the study, a person with less than a high school education had the same level of immune control as someone 15-20 years older with more than a high school education, Dowd said.

"When you listen to the current news about H1N1, it's interesting because everyone feels that this is a random threat, that we all have an equal chance of getting it," she said. "This study points out that certain groups are potentially more susceptible and it's not just people with existing chronic illness."

Dowd said the lower level of immune control among people with lower income and education was perhaps because of increased levels of stress. She noted that the global economic crisis could therefore have a negative impact on people's health.

"What is going on with the dramatic [downturn] in the economy could actually translate into people's susceptibility to these diseases," Dowd said.

Co-author Allison Aiello, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said immune response to CMV might serve as a marker of general immune alterations and was therefore an important indicator of health risks.

The study, Socioeconomic Differentials in Immune Response, will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Epidemiology.