So much for scientific debate

I thank Ted Hutchinson for pointing me at this article in the Irish Independent. It appeared on the 5th of October, and I reprint it in full, here.

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)1.
This story has been rumbling on for a while. A report on the research paper can be found in the Irish Medical Times from a couple of weeks before.

The under-reporting of findings on major adverse effects of statin therapy and the way in which they had been withheld from the public, and even concealed, is a scientific farce, claims new Irish research.
Mr Sherif Sultan, Consultant Vascular and Endovascular Surgeon, and Niamh Hynes, Clinical Lecturer In Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, claimed their study, just published in the Journal of Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases (2013, 3, 179-185) highlights the major side-effects and dangers of statins.
They said there is a categorical lack of clinical evidence to support the use of statin therapy in primary prevention. They are both based in the Western Vascular Institute at University College Hospital Galway and the Galway Clinic. “Odds are greater than 100-to-1 that if you’re taking a statin, you don’t really need it2..
I was sent the original paper by Sherif Sultan a couple of months ago, and it is very scathing about statins….. very scathing indeed. It even suggests, perish the very thought, that pharmaceutical companies may have been trying to present statins in the best light possible. I find such a suggestion almost impossible to believe. Knowing how completely ethical these companies are.
Anyway, I suppose the key phrase in all of this sorry episode is the following:

The HSE declined to comment on the reasons for ordering Mr Sultan not to speak as a public consultant.”
If the Health Service Executive were to comment, what could they say to justify their actions?
The hell with scientific debate. He should just damned will shut up and say what we want him to say?”
“How dare anyone criticise the sainted statins which work in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.”
We expect utter loyalty from those who work in the glorious Irish Health Service. Those who do not support us can expect serious sanctions……”

On balance, declining to comment is probably the best policy for the HSE. Because if you start trying to justify why you are gagging a researcher for trying to tell the truth then, well, you will end up having to justify state censorship of scientific debate. Which never looks that good on the printed page, I find.

I feel I should sign off this blog with a quote from George Orwell, taken from 1984. “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

Read the complete article here.