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New drug guidelines offer hope to Alzheimer's sufferers

Hundreds of thousands of people denied access to Alzheimer's drugs could now get them after a U-turn by the health watchdog, it was announced yesterday. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) caused controversy in 2006 and 2007 when it ruled that the medicines would only be available to people in moderate stages of the disease.

Campaigners argued it was "cruel and unethical" to force patients with early-stage Alzheimer's to wait until they became worse before they could get the drugs. Nice's new draft guidance says the medicines should now be made available to people with mild forms of the disease. The guidance, which is subject to appeal, says Aricept (donepezil), Reminyl (galantamine) and Exelon (rivastigmine) will be made available to people with mild as well as moderate Alzheimer's.

It also recommends the use of Ebixa (memantine) for severe disease and for some patients with moderate disease. Previously, it was only on offer to patients as part of a clinical trial.

The drugs, which cost around £2.80 a day, will not cure the disease, but they have been shown to boost everyday functioning, including concentration and alertness, improve mood and restore confidence.