Ministers ban Viagra on NHS

DOCTORS will not be allowed to prescribe Viagra, the "wonderdrug" hailed as a cure for impotence, on the NHS. Ministers fear that the cost of meeting the potential demand would spiral out of control.

The ruling will be announced as soon as Viagra gets its licence, probably on Wednesday, in an attempt to head off a rush for prescriptions.

Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, believes that some people - described by Government sources as the "deserving impotent" - should eventually be able to get Viagra on the NHS, but ministers want to ensure that only those with a genuine medical problem receive the pills. They are determined that the state should not subsidise the drug's use for "recreational" purposes.

Doctors have warned that Viagra, manufactured by pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer, could be widely abused and add as much as pounds 1.25bn to the NHS bill - a quarter of the total drugs budget. There are also concerns about safety. But patients will still be able to purchase the drug, which costs about pounds 6 a tablet via private prescriptions.

About one in 10 British men suffers from impotence. With 25,000 Viagra prescriptions a day being written in the US, some doctors have warned that up to 5,000 people a day could demand the drug once it is licensed in the UK. "We will announce the ban as soon as the licence is granted," a Department of Health source said. "We don't want people battering down the doors."

The ban will be a "holding position" while the department considers its longer-term view. A decision on the final status of the drug is likely to be taken by Christmas.

The Department of Health currently has a budget of pounds 10m for treating impotence. Ministers believe that some of this should eventually be allocated for Viagra. The pills would be strictly rationed and tough criteria drawn up for deciding who was eligible to receive it. The guidelines are likely to be similar to those used for allocating fertility treatment. The age, lifestyle, sexuality and health of patients could all be taken into account. Men wanting the drug could also be asked to prove they are in a secure long-term relationship.

The aim is to distinguish those with a real physical need from those who simply want to improve performance. "The dirty old man who wants to carry on with young girls will not be able to get Viagra on the NHS," said a Government source.

Experts say that, used in the right way, Viagra can be cheaper and more effective than existing methods of treatment - but there have also been warnings about the potential health risks. About 12 Viagra users in the US have died from heart problems possibly linked to taking blood pressure medicines at the same time.

It is also likely that GPs will eventually be given the power to prescribe the drug to "suitable" patients, to avoid hospital consultants being overwhelmed.

The prescription of the drug will be carefully monitored. At least one British doctor has already been criticised for selling the unlicensed drug for pounds 95 a tablet.

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