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Shaky statin claims spark rush to GPs

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Doctors have been deluged with patients questioning their cholesterol medications following the national broadcast of a controversial program calling into doubt the benefit of statins.

Sydney GP and Chair of the AMA Council of General Practice, Dr Brian Morton is among many practitioners who have seen a stream of patients asking whether they needed to continue taking cholesterol-lowering statins after the ABC’s science program Catalyst broadcast claims that cholesterol was not as harmful as had been made out, and the health benefits of statins had been exaggerated.

Dr Morton said that in the days after the program went to air on 31 October “just about everyone has come in to say, ‘Should I stop taking them [statins]?”

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton is among a chorus of health experts warning that people prescribed statins should not stop taking them just because of the Catalyst program.

Dr Hambleton said that if people were prescribed statins in accordance with national guidelines, then they should keep taking them because it would reduce their risk of a heart attack or stroke.

But while concerned about the potential for patients to be misled, the AMA President did not back the call of some for the two-part Catalyst program to be pulled altogether.

“I think we have to have a debate. And I think that there needs to be balance,” he told ABC radio. “We need to, as medical professionals, justify why we choose drugs. We do criticise others for not acting on evidence. We need to be judged by the same criteria.”

“So, if there’s a good reason to take it, we should be able to explain it, and we should be able to explain the risks and the benefits of any treatment.”

Claims made in the two-part Catalyst program have been roundly condemned by leading physicians and medical organisations, which have warned that they could cost lives. The ABC said it was investigating 90 audience complaints that the program did not meet quality standards.

The ABC’s own medical expert, host of ABC Radio National’s Health Report, Dr Norman Swan, launched a scathing attack on his Catalyst colleagues, warning that “People will die as a result of the Catalyst program unless people understand at heart what the issues are”.

Dr Swan said that what made him “really angry” was how the show’s claims might influence Indigenous patients, who are more likely to suffer from high cholesterol than the general community.

“If you were an Aboriginal person watching that program you would think: I don’t need to be on cholesterol lowering medication, I don’t need to worry about it,” he said. “Cholesterol reduction is one of the few things that you can do for Aboriginal people safely, through statins which will save their lives, even though they have not had a stroke, because they are at high absolute risk.”

“The take from the audience – at least anecdotally – was that cholesterol is not a risk factor at all: I can go back to the way I was, and that statins are evil drugs sold by the evil empire of the pharmaceutical industry,” Dr Swan told the ABC audience.

“Let’s be clear. When you reduce cholesterol, regardless of how you do it – whether it’s by statins, by other drugs or by diet – if you reduce your cholesterol you reduce the rate of coronary heart disease, of heart attacks and strokes and death. The evidence is absolutely clear.”

Statins are the most commonly prescribed subsidised medicine in the country, and on occasion are associated with severe side effects.

But National Prescribing Service Chief Executive Dr Lyn Weekes said cardiovascular disease was the country’s biggest killer, and there was “strong evidence” that statins were effective in reducing the chance of having a heart attack or stroke, particularly for those already with the disease, or who have suffered a heart attack or stroke.

“If you have been prescribed a statin to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, it is important that you keep taking your medicine as directed,” Dr Weekes said. “Statins have been shown to reduce the chance of having a first heart attack

In an article in MJA Online, nutritionist Rosemary Stanton highlighted the background of those featured on the Catalyst program.

The show, Dr Stanton said, “relied on the opinion of a journalist and four US experts — a nutritionist, two cardiologists and a physician — but failed to note that three of the experts market a range of “alternative” products via their websites,  (www.jonnybowden.comwww.drsinatra.comwww.proteinpower.com), including diet “aids” (with “slimming” claims), anti-ageing, “brain power” and detox supplements, plus a variety of bars, shakes, drinks and powders”.

“One product even claims its citrus bergamot content will lower triglycerides, blood sugar and inflammatory LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and raise HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol,” Ms Stanton said.

See also, “Some things you should know about statins and heart disease”, p22.

Adrian Rollins