Thousands of patients with Alzheimer's disease are being denied the only drugs that can help their condition, a survey suggests.

Thousands of patients with Alzheimer's disease are being denied the only drugs that can help their condition, a survey suggests.

The drugs, called choline-sterase inhibitors, are the first shown to be effective against the degenerative brain disease that strips sufferers of their personality. Researchers from the Maudsley hospital, London, have found that more than half of health authorities refuse to fund the drugs. And one-third of those that did not pay said they did not believe the drugs were cost-effective.

The drugs - Aricept, introduced in 1997, and Exolon, launched a year later - cost about £1,000 per person per year. Specialists say patients should be given a three-month trial to see if they benefit - costing about £250.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) is assessing the two drugs, and a third called Galantamine, licensed last month. It is due to issue guidance in December, but its preliminary determination is understood to back their use, although in restricted circumstances.

Specialists say about 35,000 of the estimated 500,000 Alzheimer's sufferers in Britain would be suitable for treatment with the drugs, but only a few thousand are getting them. Many patients have had to use their savings to pay for them privately.

Harry Cayton, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said there were fears that, if Nice ruled in favour of the drugs, health authorities might still refuse to provide them because of the cost. He warned: "Large numbers of authorities have made no plans to fund the drugs. We may be in the position of having to take them to court."

Mr Cayton said research had focused on the drugs' effect on cognition, which was minimal, when what mattered to patients was the improvement they brought in mood.

Dr David Wilkinson, consultant in old age psychiatry at the University of Southampton, said the outlook for Alzheimer's patients had been transformed. "When the first drug trial results came it was an epiphany - a huge change. We could now go out and diagnose the disease without fear. But we met brick wall after brick wall from the funders and some clinicians who were thinking of their budgets, not patients."

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