A LEADING vascular surgeon, whose research review concluded cholesterol-lowering medicines may do more harm than good for many otherwise healthy people, has been gagged by the Health Service Executive.
Sherif Sultan, a senior medic at University College Hospital, Galway, reviewed a range of studies of statins and found a lack of evidence to show they should be given as a means of prevention to healthy people with high cholesterol but no heart disease.
Mr Sultan and his surgeon colleague Niamh Hynes said lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol were better because this allowed people to avoid the risk of statins' side effects.
However, in a statement last night, Dr Pat Nash, a cardiologist and the group clinical director in University College Hospital said the recently published views of his colleagues were "not representative" of those in Galway or neighbouring hospitals.
"As group clinical director of the West/North West Hospitals Group, and a working cardiologist, I wish to reassure patients that statins are safe," said Dr Nash.
"These are very important, well-validated drugs for the treatment of elevated cholesterol. We have extensive evidence to show their benefit and to show that they improve outcomes for patients with heart disease and stroke and that they have a role in preventing heart disease and stroke.
"As always, if patients have any concerns, they should not discontinue their medication without discussing with their GP or consultant."
Asked to comment, Mr Sultan said: "I have received an official warning from the HSE and have been instructed not to liaise directly with the press in my capacity as a HSE consultant."
However, he said he could continue to comment as a consultant vascular surgeon at the Galway Clinic, where he has a private practice.
The HSE declined to comment on the reasons for ordering Mr Sultan not to speak as a public consultant.
He said he stood by his analysis of the role of statins in otherwise healthy patients with high cholesterol. He pointed to another recently published review on exercise versus drug therapy in the management of pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
"That 'British Medical Journal' analysis showed the superiority of exercise over drug therapy extends even to secondary prevention (where patients have developed disease).
"The most convincing evidence is in stroke prevention."
He pointed out that his own review had found there were benefits in prescribing some dosages of statins for certain patients who were already diagnosed with heart disease or had a history of a previous heart attack or stroke.
He had advised any patient who was taking statins and had concerns to talk to their doctor about them and heed their advice.
Around 250,000 prescriptions for statins are written monthly and they account for 8pc of the HSE's €1.7bn drugs spend. This amounts to one euro in every €12 spent on all drugs.
The Irish Medicines Board has received 59 reports of suspected adverse reactions to statins since the start of 2012. Side effects include a potential increased risk of diabetes, eye cataracts and male impotence.
Women who are past the menopause and who are on statins were found to have a higher chance of developing diabetes and this was associated with taking the drug.
The Irish Heart Foundation said the mainstay of preventing heart disease involved lifestyle changes, including not smoking, being active, having a healthy weight and getting regular checks for blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Eilish O'Regan Health Correspondent