Saviors or killers?

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It appears to me, after my many years of using a stethoscope, that the world has become a very cynical place for medicine. Blame it on 9-11 if you like, but the conspiracy theorists are getting very noisy. Or perhaps they have the ear of the journalists. Or perhaps the journalists find conspiracy an easy subject with which to fill newspapers.

The latest to bring the wrath of public opinion on its head is the statin group. One reporter stating: “Cholesterol has been demonized and statin drugs (Zocor, Crestor, Lipitor, Baycol, Mevacor or Altocor, Pravachol, Lescol, Livalo) have been touted as miracle drugs for lowering cholesterol, yet as we’ve seen use of statins increase we’ve seen heart disease as well as diabetes increase. Obviously, something’s wrong with the theory that statins are beneficial.

“Unfortunately, entrenched interests, pharmaceutical companies who hold the patents and manufacture statin drugs and doctors who profit from dispensing these drugs won’t let it go without a fight. There’s simply too much money riding on this false hypothesis that cholesterol is BAD and conversely statin drugs are good. Statin drugs are a multi-billion dollar business with the US accounting for about $20 billion of that profit per year.”

The purveyors of doom cite the side effect profile of the statins.

Muscle aches, tenderness, or weakness (myalgia)

Memory loss

Drowsiness

Dizziness

Difficulty sleeping

Cataracts

Loss of appetite

Weight gain

Abdominal pain or cramping

Bloating or gas

Nausea or vomiting

Diarrhea

Constipation

Liver failure

Acute kidney failure

In rare cases a potentially fatal condition called rhabdomyolysis, where muscles break down and cause kidney failure.

Headache

Flushing of the skin

Rash

Now, I am not going to deny that these side effects may occur, but to what extent? In the studies on people who had not already suffered from a heart attack or stroke, the rate of new-onset diabetes for people on statins was 2.7% and on placebo was 2.2% for example.

The research was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A study of 83,880 patients, only a small minority of symptoms reported on statins are genuinely due to the statins; almost all reported symptoms occurred just as frequently when patients were administered placebo. New-onset diabetes mellitus was the only potentially or actually symptomatic side effect whose rate was significantly higher on statins than placebo; nevertheless, only one in five of these new cases were actually caused by statins.

The author of the article proposed, “Does administration of a cholesterol lowering drug that has so many negative side effects, actually increases diabetes, may lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s, liver and kidney failure, and depletes molecules essential for heart function really make sense?”

If the above statement were true, I would look more kindly on the article, but it is a gross exaggeration of the real-life situation. New cases of diabetes occurred in 2.2% of people taking placebo (dummy) and 2.7% of people taking a statin, which is 0.5% more and potentially reversible.

And as a representative of the group the writer called “doctors who profit from dispensing these drugs” this is again a gross exaggeration, inferring that all doctors are on the take. Or perhaps there was some conspiracy to deliberately ignore me? I have never received financial sweeteners, not even a holiday in the Bahamas. Where did I go wrong, I wonder?

But when discussing side effects we should also look at some other medications we use and look at their side effect profile. One goes by the chemical name C2H6O and has the following side effects:

Slurred speech

Drowsiness

Vomiting

Diarrhea

Upset stomach

Headaches

Breathing difficulties

Distorted vision and hearing

Impaired judgment

Decreased perception and coordination

Unconsciousness

Anemia (loss of red blood cells)

Coma (which can lead to death)

Blackouts (memory lapses)

That is quite a list of dangerous side effects, so should we mount a campaign to ban this substance? Especially when it is shown that people are using C2H6O as a recreational drug!

Perhaps at this point I should also admit that C2H6O is also known as ‘ethanol’, which is also known as alcohol. Would you really like to ban it?

See you down the pub!