Every patient suffering from multiple sclerosis who would benefit from a costly new drug will receive it, the Department of Health promised yesterday, as ministers sought to avert another health care rationing furore.
The drug, beta-interferon, has been described by American doctors as the "biggest breakthrough in MS for 20 years", and more than 40,000 patients in the US have used the drug since its approval there in 1993. It will be licensed for use here next month and will cost between pounds 7,000-pounds 10,000 a year for every patient treated.
About 10,000 of the 80,000 MS sufferers in the UK, who have the relapsing, or remitting, form of MS, will be potential candidates for the drug. US clinical trials have shown that beta-interferon can cut the frequency of relapses by up to a third, although it does not cure or halt the disease, which is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, and affects mainly young adults.
The NHS executive is now drawing up guidelines on prescribing the drug, to be known as Betaferon, in consultation with the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the British Association of Neurologists. "If there's a patient who can clearly benefit from the treatment, clearly they should have [it], and it should be funded," the Department said yesterday.
However, as with many ground-breaking new drugs, the Department is strongly recommending that it is prescribed solely through hospitals. GPs will be asked to refer patients who want beta-interferon to a consultant for a full neurological assessment to "make sure clinically that it's going to the right people". There is also some concern about its long-term side-effects.
Ultimately, the decision to provide beta-interferon will rest with the local purchasing authority or GP fundholders, and many patients fear this means some will get it, while others will not, depending where they live. Some MS sufferers in the UK have already been refused the drug after a consultant has agreed to prescribe it.
Unlicensed drugs can be prescribed for small numbers of patients under a special scheme, and there are different types of beta-interferon in trial use here.
In a recent letter to one MS patient who could not get the drug, John Bowis, junior health minister, acknowledged the problem: "New drugs can be expensive and this includes beta-interferon products; money spent on them will mean less for other services."
Peter Cardy, chief executive of the MS Society, said he was urging the Department to issue "strenuous guidance" that access to the drug should be equitable. He warned that the biggest barrier to patients would be waiting lists of several months to see a neurologist.
A free leaflet on beta-interferon is available from the MS Society, 25 Effie Road, Fulham, London SW6 1EE. Helpline: 0171-371 8000.
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