Guest Post: Children Should Have Their Cholesterol Checked

Editor’s Note: CardioBrief is pleased to publish this guest post written by Samuel Gidding, the head of the cardiology division at the Nemours Cardiac Center at A. I. DuPont Hospital for Children and a professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College. CardioBrief invited Gidding, a member of the NHLBI panel that recommended universal lipid screening at ages 9-11 years, to respond to James Stein’s critique of those guidelines.

Children Should Have Their Cholesterol Checked

Samuel S. Gidding, MD

Dr. Stein, in his post, presents several arguments against cholesterol screening  in childhood.  I would like to present the view of those who drafted the document and suggest that some of Dr. Stein’s arguments are incorrect.

First, since conflicts of interest were part of his argument, I must be transparent about mine.  I have never participated in a drug industry sponsored trial of a cholesterol lowering medication.  I had no conflicts with industry until late 2009, after the main work on the guideline was complete.  Both of these are related to evidence gaps identified in the literature review for the guideline.  The first is as a member of the Data and Safety Monitoring Board for a trial of losartan to lower blood pressure in severely hypertensive children less than 6 years of age. The reimbursement for this work is deposited into a research fund to support medical students and residents performing research without another source of support.  The second is to conduct a clinical trial of fish oil for elevated triglycerides in adolescents.  There is no clinical trial data regarding medication use for elevated triglycerides in children and no recommendations were made regarding use of medications for this purpose in the NHLBI sponsored statement.  This money is provided as a grant, the trial is completely of my design and my research program manages the trial without input from the company.  There is no oversight by the company of the trial other than I have to recruit a specified number of patients and complete a manuscript to receive payment.   My reimbursement from the grant is for managing the coordinating center of the trial (there are 3 sites), analyzing the data, and for performance of various medical duties in conducting the trial.

The NHLBI guideline was strictly conducted according to the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine and other bodies that have been interested in guideline integrity. Several thousand research papers meeting preselected criteria as evidence were considered in the evaluation of recommendations for 14 different risk factors.  A paper describing the panel’s process has recently been published. (Gidding SS et al, Pediatrics, 2012)  The Lipid section of the guideline was drafted by the three members of the panel with the most knowledge about lipids.  However the recommendation of this group was debated and voted upon by the entire committee, which had a diverse composition consistent with the Institute of Medicine recommendations.  NHLBI officials cognizant of conflict of interest issues were also present and contributed to the discussion.  With one exception, none of the other 11 committee members had participated in an industry sponsored cholesterol drug trial.

All the arguments discussed in critiques of the guideline emerged in this debate, in fact, the committee felt so strongly about the evidence limitations that a specific chapter of the guideline was written to include them, particularly the cost issue.  Nonetheless, the committee, with one exception, voted for universal screening because the weight of the evidence review favored this decision despite evidence gaps.  The fact that atherosclerosis begins in the second decade of life, that this atherosclerosis (including future atherosclerosis) is strongly related to non HDL cholesterol levels, that a small but significant number of children can be identified with high cardiovascular risk, that treatments highly likely to be successful are available, and that genetic  diseases causing both high and low LDL cholesterol were highly suggestive of the risk of high LDL cholesterol and the benefit of  lifetime low LDL cholesterol levels provided this weight.   It is inaccurate of Dr. Stein to say that the evidence evaluation for the cholesterol treatment recommendation does not reflect the types of studies included to support the recommendation.  The grade given is B (not A), evidence from clinical trials with potential flaws, high quality and consistent observational studies, and Mendelian Randomization (genetic research).  Hopefully, an outcome of the guideline will be high quality clinical trials of lipid lowering treatment that have been initiated by sponsors other than industry.

Included in guideline development (and recommended by the IOM) was a period for public comment, review by several interested professional organizations, and internal review by both NHLBI and DHHS.  It is worth noting that despite receiving over a thousand critiques, only one challenged the universal screening for cholesterol recommendation and that critique only presented opinion rather than evidence against the recommendation. Based on the committee’s deliberations and the extensive external review prior to publication, it is my opinion that the argument against cholesterol screening in children is a well-considered, but minority position.

I would like to challenge several other arguments in Dr. Stein’s post as the extensive evidence review, conducted using a process now considered “state of the art”, did not support these assertions.  Most important, there is no published evidence of harm from cholesterol screening.  Guidelines regarding cholesterol testing have been in place for about twenty years and there has been no research demonstrating harm from this practice.  In West Virginia, where universal screening of cholesterol occurs in schools voluntarily, over 60% of children agree to testing and no harm has been identified in this program.  Our evidence review specifically sought publications with side effects or unintended consequences of screening and none were found.  The age of cholesterol screening was chosen partly because most states require a medical examination as a requirement for public school admission and blood is often drawn for other purposes.  Girls do have slightly higher total cholesterol levels than boys but women have equal rates of heart disease as men, only at slightly older ages.  The number of cases of familial hypercholesterolemia missed by current guidelines is significant, one of the reasons for the universal screening recommendation was that numerous studies since the publication of the 1992 guideline suggest that between 25 and 30% of cases are missed by selective screening; given the frequency of 1:300-500 in the population, this is not a trivial number (and there is no gender bias in these levels).  The dietary guidelines presented are for all children, not just those with high cholesterol.  One of the reasons for delay in publication was the need to synchronize the recommendations with the evidence-based 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The cardiovascular health of children has deteriorated significantly, principally because of the obesity epidemic and poor nutrition habits.  Many, almost one third of United States children, have a different dyslipidemia (low HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides) and it has been recommended, prior to the publication of the universal screening recommendations, that these children have their lipids checked.  I am concerned that the debate about the usefulness of checking cholesterol might send the wrong message to the general population, that accurately knowing your cardiovascular risk is not useful for this vulnerable population.

A key tenet of the Institute of Medicine recommendations for guideline development is that they undergo periodic review with reconsideration of the evidence.    For the lipid section in particular, the evidence gaps identified in the critique of Dr. Stein and others cited in his post had insufficient weight as evidence compared to the many studies supporting the final recommendations.  Nonetheless, the current guideline should not be the last word. Evidence gaps point the way for future research and this new work should inform future deliberations on this important issue.

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