Experts say two in five could get heart drugs

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Two in every five adults in England could be offered statins to prevent heart attacks and strokes after health officials today announce a lowering of the threshold for eligible people.

Millions more people will qualify for the cholesterol-reducing drugs on the NHS following updated guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

Experts said that potentially 17 million people could now be offered the drugs to prevent illness.

The drugs are currently offered to people in the UK who have a 20 per cent risk of developing cardiovascular disease within 10 years. But the updated guidance has called for the NHS to widen this to cover people with just a 10 per cent risk.

If everyone eligible took the drugs between 20,000 and 50,000 deaths could be prevented every year, Nice officials said.

Experts looked at the average blood pressure and cholesterol levels of English adults and found that the average man over the age of 60 would now qualify to take the preventative medication and the average woman over the age of 65 would become eligible.

When draft guidelines were issued earlier this year, a group of leading doctors criticised the plans claiming they were based almost entirely on studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry, and pointed to drug side effects including fatigue, psychiatric symptoms, as well as an increased risk of developing diabetes in middle-aged women. They also claimed that the “medicalisation of millions of healthy individuals” is unjustified.

But in unusually hard-hitting comments launching the guidance, Prof Mark Baker, director of the Centre for Clinical Practice at Nice, said it was “ludicrous” to suggest the move would lead to over medicalisation of the population.

“The effectiveness of these medicines is now well proven and their cost has fallen,” he said.

“It is ludicrous to suggest that we are over-medicalising the population when the whole point of using modern safe and effective drugs in an economic way is to prevent bad things happening in the future.

“I would say that there is a risk that the noise distorts the message to the point where people whose lives are going to be saved by statins come off them because they don’t understand the confusion created by a tiny minority of doctors who write letters to the Press or to the Secretary of State or to us. It’s not for me to name names or accuse people of doing individual things but from a public health point of view it is a tragedy waiting to happen and it is really annoying.”

Prof Peter Weissberg, at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Too many people die from cardiovascular disease, and these new guidelines are part of continuing efforts to prevent heart attacks and strokes.”

Prof Sir John Tooke, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, added: “The weight of evidence suggests statins are effective, affordable and have an acceptable risk benefit profile. Appropriate drug therapy should not be denied on the basis of an ideological stance against ‘medicalisation’.”