NACCHO Aboriginal Health News: Aboriginal health groups express concern over cholesterol and statins debate

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ELEANOR HALL: Indigenous health groups are expressing concerns that the ABC’s Catalyst program into cholesterol and statins will hurt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As a genetic group, Indigenous Australians are at a high risk of heart disease.

And health experts say statins are a tool which can dramatically help the condition.

The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association is urging people to keep taking their prescribed drugs, and talk to their GPs if they’re worried.

Will Ockenden has our report.

WILL OCKENDEN: The major investigation by ABC TV’s Catalyst program questioned the scientific evidence linking cholesterol to heart disease.

It also claimed that taking anti-cholesterol medication called statins could have a detrimental effect to our health.

The reaction from some public health experts was swift and negative.

NORMAN SWAN: Essentially statins will reduce your cholesterol at any level. The magnitude of the benefit depends on the magnitude of your personal risk. So if you’ve got a high magnitude of risk, then you need to be on a statin.

WILL OCKENDEN: Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are genetically at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, ABC RN’s Health Report presenter Norman Swan says it’s worth taking statins.

NORMAN SWAN: People in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, almost all, male and female, are at high risk of premature death, tragically premature death, from coronary heart disease, stroke. Statins work at all levels of risk, it’s just that they’re only worth taking when you’re getting towards high risk.

And there’s this unacceptable life expectancy gap. 17 years, 11 years depending on how you calculate it. If people at high risk in Aboriginal communities were put on a statin and blood pressure lowering medications to the extent that they need them, we’d probably close that gap by six years. Six years.

WILL OCKENDEN: The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association president, Dr Tammy Kimpton, says she hasn’t had any patients talk to her about stopping their statins, but it’s still a big worry that they might.

Other Indigenous health groups echo her concerns.

Dr Mark Wenitong is a public health medical officer at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

MARK WENITONG: What we were most concerned about from the Aboriginal community control centre, was that the wrong message would clearly be sent out to the population that is most at risk in Australia, and that has the most to gain from being on medications. And the most to lose from not being on medications.

WILL OCKENDEN: What kind of message do you think was sent out?

MARK WENITONG: What happens to real people in a real world, particularly in our communities, is they hear that somebody said that this is what happened, that statins are bad for you so you should go off them. They mightn’t see a doctor for the next six months. So when these kind of things go out through our communities, we need to be able to communicate effectively what this is really about.

And if this is really about, why don’t you go see your doctor, talk to him about what medications, trying to find out exactly what each of them are for, and the justification for being on them, that’s all fine. But when you don’t have that kind of access and when you have the risk profiles that we have in our communities, that’s a big issue.

WILL OCKENDEN: Why are statins such a valuable tool in treating cholesterol for Indigenous people?

MARK WENITONG: As we know, cardiovascular is the biggest killer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. Statins are a part of the toolkit that we use to control people’s risk factors for heart disease.

WILL OCKENDEN: The ABC’s Director of Corporate Affairs told The World Today that the Catalyst episodes have so far received about 15 complaints.

Most appear to be from doctors.

Michael Millett says the second Catalyst program carried an advisory at the beginning and the end, that said it was not a medical program

ELEANOR HALL: Will Ockenden with our report

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