A controversial ABC television program that called cholesterol medication “toxic” could be responsible for causing 2000 more heart attacks and strokes in Australia over the next five years, the Heart Foundation says.
It has surveyed Australians taking the medication and found up to 55,000 people could have stopped because of the Catalyst episodes, putting themselves at risk of serious illness and even death.
In late October, Catalyst aired two episodes on diet, the first arguing that the causal link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease was “the biggest myth in medical history”, and the second that cholesterol medications were toxic and potentially deadly.
The ABC has confirmed it is investigating 80 complaints about the episodes, the second of which aired with a warning that it “should not be taken as medical advice”.
Heart Foundation national director of cardiovascular health Robert Grenfell said the results were “frightening”.
“If anybody reading this article has actually stopped their medication, they should restart it and then talk to their GP about why they are on these medications,” he said.
The Heart Foundation surveyed more than 1000 people who had been taking the medication, called statins, and extrapolated the results to the broader population.
Statins are the most widely-prescribed drug in Australia, with more than 2.1 million people taking them.
Dr Grenfell said if all the people at high risk of heart disease stayed off their medication for the next five years, the analysis indicated at least 2000 extra heart attacks or strokes would occur.
“And that is a very conservative calculation,” he said.
The survey found that more than one in five of the 330 medication users who watched Catalyst or heard about it had stopped or reduced their cholesterol medication. Of those, a quarter had had a heart attack and 40 per cent smoked.
The survey also found people who saw the episode were more likely to have begun to favour alternative treatments.
“Essentially [Catalyst] has been a selling platform for those selling unproven remedies and natural therapies,” Dr Grenfell said.
“I would have been pleased if they had had a balanced discussion on this and had used Australian experts rather than gone overseas and found experts of dubious honour who themselves are marketing products.”
Many Australian experts contacted for the program were not used in the final cut.
One, University of Sydney head of cardiology David Celermajer, has said he and others felt they were ignored so as to sell a “particular version of the science”.
Dr Grenfell said there was a serious concern in Australia with the high proportion of GPs who prescribed statins to people solely on the basis of a person’s cholesterol level.
Best practice is prescription based on overall high risk of heart disease and stroke, which includes other factors alongside cholesterol such as high blood pressure, obesity or smoking.
“There is in Australia a problem with people being treated with cholesterol medication as a single risk factor … and they have every right to question why they are being treated,” he said.
“But we also know there’s a large population of Australians who are high risk who aren’t on medication.”
He said funding needed to be given to Medicare Locals to implement programs to encourage lifestyle change in people at risk of heart disease, as well as to educate GPs about appropriate prescribing.
A spokesman for the ABC said its audience and consumer affairs unit was assessing 80 complaints made about the program, which concerned issues of balance and accuracy.
“The program was always going to arouse strong debate and the ABC has attracted both praise and criticism for airing it,” he said.
“Their job is to determine whether the program meets the standards set out in the Editorial Policies.”
Source: NSW News