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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
Beta interferon: Rights and wrongs
By BBC Health Correspondent Karen Allen

This week the body charged with evaluating the benefits and costs of drugs for the NHS, provisionally ruled that the multiple sclerosis treatment beta interferon should not be prescribed to newly diagnosed patients.

It wasn't because they thought it didn't work, but because when set against the price of the drug (up to 10,000 per patient per year) it didn't show enough benefit to enough people.

But there is a flaw in this logic. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), the body that made this decision, ruled that patients already on the drug could continue their treatment.

But I thought they just decided it was not good value for money? They agreed it was inconsistent but told me it was a pragmatic gesture. You can understand why groups such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society have had a bad week and are livid.

This is a complex issue made more frustrating by the fact that this very expensive drug is available for a fraction of the cost overseas. If the drug were cheaper, then there might be stronger grounds for providing it on the NHS .

NICE has now indicated that the government should put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to try and get the price down.

'Enhanced quality of life'

There are 80,000 people in the UK with multiple sclerosis - theoretically beta interferon could help about 10% of them, but the reality is that only about 2% actually receive it.

It is not a cure and can only be used at a particular stage of the relapsing-remitting form of the disease but for the few who are on it, it has dramatically enhanced their quality of life.

But at 10,000 a year and with limited NHS funds the harsh question that has to be asked is could that money be better spent treating more patients with other diseases?

Charities would say that this isn't the issue - beta interferon is the only drug treatment for MS and there are no alternatives.

What NICE hasn't considered is the long term saving of keeping people with multiple-sclerosis in work and off benefits as a result of offering a drug which could control the relapses which can cause patients to go blind and leave them paralysed.

That is precisely why charities have called for long term monitoring of the benefits of beta interferon before slamming the door in the face of those newly diagnosed with the disease.

NICE was established by the government to make those awkward rationing decisions - so far beta interferon is the biggest test it has had to face.

Charities have criticised it for being overshadowed by politics.

Maybe that's true but maybe also they should be turning their attention to why, compared to other countries, the UK pharmaceutical industry is charging such a high price.

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