Dobson delays Viagra on NHS

THOUSANDS OF impotence sufferers face a delay of up to a month before they know whether they can obtain the controversial drug Viagra on the NHS.

The drug is to be given its European licence today by officials in Brussels. Yesterday's decision by Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, to impose a temporary ban on its use on the NHS will mean a bonanza for private clinics and the black market, where the little blue pills have been available for months at up to pounds 50 each.

Mr Dobson said expectations of the drug were so high that it could seriously drain NHS funds. "Other patients could be denied the treatment they need. I cannot allow this to happen. The potential availability of this drug raises issues about the priority which should be given to the treatment of impotence on the NHS."

Doctors estimated that the drug could cost the NHS more than pounds 1bn, but that was if every one of the 2.5 million impotent men in the UK came forward for treatment and wanted sex four times a week. A more conservative estimate by the manufacturer, Pfizer, based on 30 per cent of affected men seeking treatment and wanting sex once a week, suggested that the cost might reach pounds 50m a year after five years - still four times the existing spending on treatments for impotence.

Mr Dobson said "definitive guidance" would be issued in the next few weeks, but in the meantime doctors should not prescribe Viagra save in "exceptional circumstances".

Ministers are determined to squash any perception of Viagra as a recreational drug. Alan Milburn, the health minister, has already indicated that prescribing will be restricted to hospital specialists only, but specific advice is still awaited from the Standing Medical Advisory Committee.

Ministers are hoping that, after the expected surge of interest in the drug once it is licensed, demand will subside. In the US, where Viagra was launched last March, demand soared for the first three months, but fell suddenly as American men realised they did not want as much sex as they thought.

A spokesman for Pfizer said the natural effects of ageing and embarrassment over seeking help conspired to curb demand. "Let's face it, a lot of men are no longer interested in sex when they get older. It's a fact," he said. Derek Machin, secretary of the British Urological Association and a consultant urologist in Liverpool, said the temporary ban would put GPs in an untenable position.

"People who have had their expectations raised are going to go to their doctors to be told they can't get it," he said. "We have known for two years that this drug was coming and the day before it is licensed the Government says it hasn't had time to sort it out. I am not impressed."

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