Women denied key drug for cancer

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The Independent Online
THE NHS spends 10 times more on treating constipation and digestive ailments than on life-saving cancer drugs which are being withheld from patients, denying them the chance of survival, experts said yesterday.

Over pounds 800m a year is spent on laxatives and indigestion treatments compared with pounds 70m on all forms of chemotherapy treatment for cancer. In some cases drugs that have been proved to save or extend the lives of cancer sufferers are being rationed by the NHS because of their cost.

Professor Hilary Thomas, a clinical oncologist at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, said: "It is an anomaly that only 1 per cent of the total NHS drugs bill is spent on chemotherapy. That cannot be right when 20 per cent goes on gastro-intestinal drugs that don't affect survival." Professor Thomas was speaking at the launch of a survey showing that women with ovarian cancer are being denied the drug Taxol, despite expert advice that it is the most effective treatment. The survey found four out of five health authorities were not committed to providing the drug, which costs pounds 7,500 per patient a year.

Jean Mossman, the director of Cancerbacup, the cancer charity which commissioned the survey, said 6,000 women a year develop ovarian cancer of whom 3,000 could benefit from Taxol, but only a tiny minority were getting it. The drug was being rationed by postcode, she said.

"This is just one example of a new treatment for a disease in which the outlook is bleak. New cancer drugs are coming in and we have to have mechanisms in place to ensure they are introduced across the NHS so patients don't die unnecessarily. Patients should have access to the best treatment, regardless of where they live. We believe the NHS should be a truly national service."

Two international trials have shown Taxol extends the lives of women with advanced ovarian cancer by 10 to 13 months - 50 per cent more than existing treatments - and oncologists believe it will increase the "cure" rate for the disease from 25 per cent towards the 40-50 per cent achieved in the US. Advice from the Joint Council on Clinical Oncology, representing leading specialists, that it is the most effective treatment was officially endorsed in September by the health department's Standing Medical Advisory Committee.

International comparisons show Britain is the poor relation in terms of spending on chemotherapy. In 1997, the figure for the UK was 95 pence per person compared with pounds 3.81 in Italy, pounds 6.24 in Germany and pounds 7.76 in the US.

Ms Mossman said even Greece, with a population of eight million, was spending more on Taxol than Britain with a population of 60 million. Patients here had to fight for treatment and evidence showed the more articulate and pushy ones were most likely to get it. "It shouldn't be down to patients to fight to get treatment. It should be down to the NHS to provide it," she said.

Dr Melanie Powell, a clinical oncologist at St Bartholomew's hospital, said drug budgets for cancer patients were under pressure. "There are always problems of overspending because we cannot turn patients away. The need is there. We are just trying to treat patients in the way that is best for them."