Kathlyn Stone is an associate editor with HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets at @KatKStone.
Case in point: One of the latest studies, published Wednesday, Feb. 15, analyzed results from 25 previous trials and found that vitamin D supplementation might help prevent respiratory infections in some people who have low vitamin D levels.
We were optimistic that the news release from the BMJ – the journal that published the study — would help steer news coverage in an informed direction. That’s because it referenced some of the limitations of the study in a linked editorial that accompanies the National Health Service (NHS)-sponsored study by Martineau and colleagues. The editorial is written by researchers who have previously published their own work on vitamin D but had no involvement in the Martineau study. They concluded that the study is a “hypothesis…requiring confirmation” in larger controlled trials.
But optimism gave way to a feeling of “foiled again” when we looked at February 16’s
crop of vitamin D articles. Most of the stories we read contained none of the numerous cautions and limitations described in the editorial. The few that did add some caveats had them buried far down in the story. And none of the concerns with the research were reflected in the headlines.
The Guardian’s article on the study offered perhaps the strongest caution of any story we saw, but its original headline (“Adding vitamin D to food reduces deaths, say scientists”) was inaccurate at best. The study doesn’t claim that vitamin D reduces death. (The headline has since been updated to “Vitamin D ‘proved to cut risk of colds and flu'”–but this is still misleading; that hypothesis still requires confirmation, as the linked editorial points out.)
But the Guardian article improves from there. Lower in the article it includes snippets from the editorial:
“Although the authors consider the case proven, scientists are still divided. Mark Bolland from the University of Auckland and Alison Avenell from the University of Aberdeen say in an editorial in the BMJ that large randomised controlled trials – comparing people taking vitamin D with others who do not – are still needed.
“Current evidence does not support the use of vitamin D supplementation to prevent disease, except for those at high risk of osteomalacia (weak bones and muscles due to low blood vitamin D levels, currently defined as less than 25 nmol/L),” they write.”
NPR’s approach on the limitations (A Bit More Vitamin D Might Help Prevent Colds And Flu) was to provide some context about how hard it is to determine the right amount of vitamin D.
“Over the last 10 years, a number of studies have suggested that the sunshine vitamin can help prevent disease. That has led people to think that higher doses of supplements are better. But Abrams says he’s not convinced there’s a benefit of taking a supplement for people who are not deficient. “It needs further studies to confirm.”
“Abrams [an expert who had contributed to Institute of Medicine guidelines on vitamin D intake] says the importance of the new study is that it’s a summary of 25 controlled trials. “And it shows that people with very low vitamin D [levels] do better when they’re given supplements.” He says this is not too surprising. “If you’re deficient, getting an adequate amount will make a difference.”
“In other words, if you’re getting the recommended 600 IUs of vitamin D from your diet, a supplement may not lead to any further benefit. But the growing interest in vitamin D has lots of people curious about their levels.”
TIME’s single-source story contained no caveats, nor did the Harvard Gazette, which provided an even more glowing summary of the research. It begins, “A new global collaborative study has confirmed that vitamin D supplementation can help protect against acute respiratory infections.” There’s no mention of the very modest risk reduction or of the common problems associated with meta-analyses.
Allison Dostal, PhD, RD, a nutrition researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and HealthNewsReview.org contributor, pointed out that the results of the study were “arrived at through sub-group analyses and may not have had the statistical power to fully support their assertions. Further, racial and ethnic subgroups were not studied in detail, which limits the translation of the results to specific populations at risk for vitamin D deficiency.”
The issue with subgroup analyses is that results found in one group (in this case based on age) don’t necessarily reflect the results found across all groups. For example, an intervention found beneficial in one subgroup may be inconsequential or even harmful in another.
Dostal said information from the meta-analyses could potentially help in development of vitamin D supplementation guidelines for prevention of acute respiratory infection — if the results are supported by more randomized trials designed to look specifically at the outcomes of interest.
While this study showed that daily or weekly dosing had a protective effect against acute respiratory infection, “randomized trials designed to study the difference in dosing frequencies, with appropriate control groups, are necessary to fully support this conclusion,” Dostal said.
Kathleen Fairfield, MD, MPH, DrPH, an internist and researcher at Maine Medical Center Research Institute and frequent HealthNewsReview.org contributor, had a similar view. “Meta-analyses are only as good as their source studies.” Many smaller studies with differences in their size and intent can’t be summed together to make useful conclusions, she explained. “There is absolutely no reason to be talking about population supplementation of vitamin D on the basis of this,” said Fairfield.
With the exception of the Guardian, all of the stories we saw glossed over or ignored the limitations outlined in the BMJ editorial. Here are some of the key ones:
That finding in a small age group shouldn’t translate into the generalization that vitamin D augmentation reduces the chances for colds and flu in the general population. And health writers may have missed an easy opportunity to help educate rather than obfuscate findings from another vitamin D study.