British Medical Journal cholesterol drug retract

The British Medical Journal has had to retract statements about cholesterol-lowering drugs. Picture: AP
The British Medical Journal has had to retract statements about cholesterol-lowering drugs. Picture: AP
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STATEMENTS about the side-effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs which caused controversy when they were published last year have been withdrawn by their authors after they were found to be incorrect.

In October the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article by John Abramson and colleagues from Harvard medical school that questioned the evidence behind new proposals to extend the routine use of statins to people at low risk of heart disease.

They highlighted research that showed no benefits in reduced deaths linked to the treatment of people with a less than a 20 per cent risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the next ten years - a claim that has not been challenged.

But they went on to cite data from a separate study which incorrectly stated that statin side-effects occurred in 18-20 per cent of patients, a claim also repeated in another article in the same journal by Aseem Malhotra. The authors have now withdrawn this statement.

BMJ editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee said they wanted to alert people to the withdrawal “so that patients who could benefit from statins are not wrongly deterred from starting or continuing treatment because of exaggerated concerns over side effects”.

Dr Godlee has also asked an independent expert panel to decide whether the articles should be retracted.

The BMJ said the error was due to a misreading of data from one study, and was not picked up by the peer reviewers or editors.

Dr Godlee said: “The BMJ and the authors of both these articles have now been made aware that this figure is incorrect, and corrections have been published withdrawing these statements.”

The BMJ was alerted to the error by Rory Collins, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University and head of the group whose data were re-analysed.

Professor Collins has requested retraction of both articles, but Dr Godlee questioned whether the error was sufficient for retraction “given that the incorrect statements were in each case secondary to the article’s primary focus”.

She has decided to pass the decision to an independent panel, chaired by Iona Heath, former chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners and of the BMJ’s ethics committee.

“The BMJ will continue to debate the important questions raised in both these articles: whether the use of statins should be extended to a vastly wider population of people at low risk of cardiovascular disease; and the role of saturated fat in heart disease,” Dr Godlee wrote in the journal.

Professor Collin said it was “excellent news” that the BMJ had decided to withdraw “these misleading claims”.

But he called for the journal to go further “by retracting these seriously flawed papers in the interest of public health”.

Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The BHF welcomes the BMJ’s retraction of incorrect statements on the side effects of statins.

“Statins are an important weapon in the fight against heart disease and it is essential that trusted medical journals like the BMJ do not mislead the public. Patients should feel reassured by this move and should not stop taking their statin.”