'Breakthrough' drug is on NHS

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

A drug which offers hope to thousands of people suffering from multiple sclerosis is now available on prescription in the United Kingdom.

Interferon-beta 1b has been described by doctors in the United States as the "biggest breakthrough in MS for 20 years", although British doctors are more cautious.

However, they accept that in people with the relapsing or remitting form of MS, the drug has been shown to cut the frequency of relapses by up to a third, although it does not cure of halt the disease which is a degenerative disorder of the nervous system.

The drug, to be sold as Betaferon, was at the centre of a row over rationing in the National Health Service this year, after it was claimed that it would not be available to all patients who were suitable for treatment on the grounds of cost.

A month's supply costs pounds 806 per patient - pounds 9,600 a year - and it may have to be administered over a number of years. There are around 85,000 people in the UK with MS, and up to half are potentially suitable for the drug.

The NHS Executive has issued guidelines on the prescribing of the drug and consultant neurologists in hospitals, rather than GPs, are likely to be prime prescribers at least in the short term.

A spokeswoman for Schering Health Care Ltd, which makes the drug, said yesterday: "Betaferon is expensive, but for some patients it might be eminently worth it. If people are having frequent relapses, every few months they may find they can't see or can't walk properly. This drug could make a big difference to them."

The drug has been available in the US for two years. A small number of patients in the UK have benefited from it already as it has been available for experimental use, although some health authorities have refused to pay for it.