Modern medicine has worked miracles in improving the quality and length of life. We now routinely live into our 100s, in part due to drugs developed through scientific rigour. But one such drug, the Statin, remains highly controversial, despite all the evidence illustrating its safety and effectiveness.
Statins have been a mainstay in the medical practice for more than 30 years.
Negative media reports about the safety of Statins is followed by people stopping their prescribed Statins
The drugs work by reducing the production of cholesterol by the liver and consequently prevent heart attacks and strokes.
And thousands of deaths and disabilities could easily be prevented if Statins were finally accepted, believes Professor Colin Baigent, director of the Medical Research Council population health research unit at Oxford University.
Professor Beignet believes a fallible scientific method combined with an irresponsible media have fostered an unhealthy attitude towards Statins in society.
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He said: “There is controversy around Statins’ use but not none among informed parties about their effectiveness.
“When you look at the amount of data that we have – nearly 190,000 patients and more than 25,000 medical cases – that information is really quite extraordinary, in terms of its reliability.
“We know definitely Statins reduce the chance of heart attacks and strokes and we know how much they do that at different doses.
“Where there has been a good deal of discussion has been on the issue of safety of Statins.
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“And the information we have from trials is very reassuring, and I would argue that that is where we should go for our information about drug safety, simply because it is a way of getting non-biased information.”
The confusion appears to have arisen because some medical parties have used non-randomised studies.
Professor Beignet said: “The problem with this type of study is that people know what treatment they are taking and also it it is very difficult to adjust for the differences between people, other than the Statin use.
“So they produce really unreliable results.
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Statins: Exaggerated claims made by sections of the media are also thought to be at fault
Statin: The drugs work by reducing the production of cholesterol by the liver
“And this is why in particular you see alleged side-effects that studies suggest Statins produce a particular side-effect and other studies suggest the opposite.
“So you have the most awful confusion in the general public about what we can trust.
“If we put our trust in randomised trials, none of that confusion is necessary.”
And this lack of appreciation in the medical profession about just how dangerous it is to rely on observational studies, appears to have been devoured by a media hungry for sensationalist stories to sell newspapers.
Professor Beignet said: “There is evidence that negative media reports about the safety of Statins have been followed by people stopping their prescribed Statins.
“And given that we know Statins are effective in stopping heart attacks and strokes, if people who already have a history of the disease stop taking their Statin treatment, then the inference has to be it is likely to cause some people to suffer unnecessarily.
“They could either have a heart attack or stroke or indeed that may even die after such discontinuation of the treatment.
Statins: Professor Colin Baigent believes the use of non-randomised studies is part of the problem
Statins: There appears to be a constant seesaw in attitude over Statins use
“The media are in the business of selling newspapers and reporting in the media requires capturing the public’s attention.
“A positive headline about Statins will be followed in a few weeks’ time by a negative headline about Statins.
“This seesaw in attitude about Statins being a good thing and then a bad thing, is the dynamic we currently have in society.”
The director of the Medical Research Council population health research unit at Oxford University believes the only solution is for to patients try and understand for themselves what they can trust in terms of evidence.
He said: “I know this can require some effort, but if people worked out for themselves which studies they can trust, then it would really be very easy for them to decide that Statins are very effective and very safe.
“We have to make more effort to understand what we can trust, based on the evidence.
“There is simply a conflict between reliable evidence and unreliable evidence.”