Fears ABC Catalyst cholesterol shows could lead to deaths

THE ABC has gone into damage control amid fears its Catalyst program will lead to people stop taking cholesterol reducing medications.

In a post on its site, Radio National health report expert Dr Norman Swan says the show went too far, and for many people, disregarding medical advice on lowering cholesterol could kill them.

"The recent two part series on cholesterol and the cholesterol lowering medications called statins on ABC 1's Catalyst has caused considerable ire and confusion,'' he writes.

"The first part questioned the importance of cholesterol as a risk factor and the second was pretty damning about statins.''

The second shows opens with: "Over 40 million people worldwide take drugs to lower their cholesterol. But now there's evidence that the majority of them won't benefit.

"None of those people are less likely to die," Professor Rita Redberg tells viewers.

The show quotes other doctors of accusing drug companies "of distorting the evidence about the drug's side effects.''

"Of course they're going to try to minimise the adverse events 'cause that will increase the sales of their drugs,'' Dr John Abramson says.

Professor Beatrice Golomb:  "In its effect it's certainly scientific fraud, and in its effect it's organised crime.''

But in an interview on ABC Coast FM, Dr Swan says there is clear evidence that taking cholesterol reducing medications will reduce the risk of heart disease and death for many Australians.

"If you are at a high risk of heart attack or stroke statins will not only reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke but they will reduce your risk of dying,'' Dr Swan said.

He said while the Catalyst show was not factually incorrect, it had not properly emphasised key facts.

"The program was in a sense accurate but you did not get that accurate message because it was not emphasised,'' Dr Swan said.

He said people should be very clear that taking statins were not only beneficial but life saving, particularly for those who had had a heart attack, a stroke, had particularly high cholesterol levels, or a family history of premature death from such conditions.

"For these people, statins will save your life.''

He said while lifestyle changes also helped, they could not be solely relied upon in higher risk cases.

"The degree of reductions you can get from lifestyle changes are usually not enough, so medications like statins are needed to reduce your chances of dying or having a coronary event,'' Dr Swan wrote.

He said the side effects of the medications, which include muscle problems and 'fogginess'' in the mind, were certainly less than the real risk of someone dying if they did not take the drugs.

"For most people, if you are going to get side effects from statins, it's minor and bothersome (rather than of great risk),'' he said.

But he also told ABC Coast FM there was a problem with people who were prescribed cholesterol reducing medications who did not need them.

"The lower your absolute risk of a heart attack or stroke, the less likely you are to benefit from, say a statin,'' he wrote in his post.

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