London, January 18 : The benefits of drugs to treat pre-osteoporosis or "osteopenia" have been exaggerated, and their harms underplayed, in a series of recent scientific publications, say experts.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, they also warned that this distortion of facts has potentially encouraged treatment in millions of low risk women.
The authors say that this represents a classic case of disease-mongering, that is, transforming a risk factor into a medical disease to sell tests and drugs to relatively healthy people.
Drug companies have already begun to market their drugs to women with osteopenia, based on re-analyses of four osteoporosis drug trials.
However, the authors of the report insist that this move raises serious questions about the benefit-risk ratio for low risk individuals, and about the costs of treating an enormous group of healthy people.
They say that one reanalysis cites a 75 per cent relative risk reduction, although this translates into only a 0.9 per cent reduction in absolute risk.
They also revealed that the reanalysis of data for a drug called raloxifene focuses solely on the potential benefits, without mentioning the increased risk of blood clots.
The experts also said that all of the original drug trials being re-analysed were funded by industry and, in three out of four cases, drug company employees were part of the team conducting the reanalyses.
While the World Health Organisation is currently developing guidance on how to deal with women categorised as having osteopenia, the authors say that it is still questionable whether this will stop industry efforts to encourage treatment in low risk women.
"We need to ask whether the coming wave of marketing targeting those women with pre-osteoporosis will result in the sound effective prevention of fractures or the unnecessary and wasteful treatment of millions more healthy women," they conclude.