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PR release on vitamin D and respiratory infections offers transparency on harms and study limitations

Vitamin D reduces respiratory infections, says CU Anschutz study

Our Review Summary

vitamin DThis a tidy little release that gives just enough information for reporters to decide whether it’s newsworthy. The release summarizes a randomized clinical trial which enrolled 107 elderly nursing home patients. Half the enrolled patients received a very large dose of vitamin D (3,300-4,300 units daily) and the controls were given a lower dose (400-1,000 units daily). The outcome of interest was that the high dose patients developed fewer respiratory infections than the control group. However, the patients in the high dose group also had more falls.

What the release lacks is the right context to help readers understand the significance of the findings. We love the fact that, unlike most news releases, it makes mention of the potential side effects, twice even. But it falls short on a discussion of costs, benefits, alternatives, and funding sources. These would have been easy additions that would have added marginally to the length of the release. 

 

Why This Matters

Reducing the rate of acute respiratory illness (ARI) in the elderly could lead to a reduction in serious infections leading to pneumonia and death.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no mention of costs in the release. Even though we are talking about vitamin D, which can be found at any drugstore for around $20 a bottle, we estimate that it could cost about $10 – $15 for a 30-day supply.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release did not provide adequate quantification of benefits. It said that of the 55 elderly people who received high doses of vitamin D, “those with higher doses saw ARIs cut nearly in half.” That’s quite vague. What was the rate before? Would all 55 have developed ARIs or only two?

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The release notes that the higher doses of vitamin D also had unintended side effects. It reports that the number of falls in the high dose group was significantly increased, although according to the study, the number of hip fractures was not different in the two groups.

The release meets our standard here, but the finding of more falls should arguably have received more emphasis. Falls might lead to more hip fractures, which could cancel out any “lifesaving” benefits from reduced rates of respiratory infection.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The release describes the basic outlines of the year-long trial, and it notes that the findings were published in a journal. The release also clues readers in to limitations of the study. It cautions that “the study is not definitive proof that vitamin D can prevent ARI.” It also states that “This finding requires a confirmatory trial, including whether high daily doses of vitamin D, rather than high monthly doses, makes patients less likely to fall,” according to the lead author.

It’s worth noting that, according to the published study, less than 10 percent of the patients approached to take part in the study agreed to participate. This might suggest that the findings may apply to only a subset of nursing home patients.  

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease mongering in the release.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not make any mention of funding sources. The published study lists government agencies, including the Veterans Administration, as sponsors.  

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The release says that there are not enough good options for preventing ARIs, but it does not adequately explain the options.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

There’s no mention of availability, but it’s generally understood that vitamin D is widely available.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The release notes that the clinical trial was the first to examine vitamin D’s impact on respiratory infections in nursing home residents, and explains clearly that the findings require a confirmatory clinical trial.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

We never like to see terms like “life saving” even when the word “potentially” is appended in the front. The headline on this release says, “A potentially life-saving discovery in older patients at high risk for these illnesses.”

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory

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