Background: Influenza pneumonia causes high mortality every year, and pandemic episodes kill millions of people. Influenza-related mortality has been variously ascribed to an ineffective host response that fails to limit viral replication, an excessive host inflammatory response that results in lung injury and impairment of gas exchange, or to bacterial superinfection. We sought to determine whether lung inflammation promoted or impaired host survival in influenza pneumonia.
Methods and findings: To distinguish among these possible causes of influenza-related death, we induced robust lung inflammation by exposing mice to an aerosolized bacterial lysate prior to challenge with live virus. The treatment induced expression of the inflammatory cytokines IL-6 and TNF in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid 8- and 40-fold greater, respectively, than that caused by lethal influenza infection. Yet, this augmented inflammation was associated with striking resistance to host mortality (0% vs 90% survival, p = 0.0001) and reduced viral titers (p = 0.004). Bacterial superinfection of virus infected lungs was not observed. When mice were repeatedly exposed to the bacterial lysate, as would be clinically desirable during an influenza epidemic, there was no tachyphylaxis of the induced viral resistance. When the bacterial lysate was administered after the viral challenge, there was still some mortality benefit, and when ribavirin was added to the aerosolized bacterial lysate, host survival was synergistically improved (0% vs 93.3% survival, p<0.0001).
Conclusions: Together, these data indicate that innate immune resistance to influenza can be effectively stimulated, and suggest that ineffective rather than excessive inflammation is the major cause of mortality in influenza pneumonia.