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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Blindness therapy row
Photodynamic therapy
Photodynamic therapy uses lasers
Patient groups are urging the NHS drugs watchdog to recommend a new anti-blindness therapy is made available on the NHS.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) said up to 20,000 people in the UK could be left to go blind over the next few years if the treatment is not made widely available.

Verteporfin is a form of photodynamic therapy designed to treat people with a condition called wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Approximately 21,000 new cases in the UK each year
16,000 people are registered blind each year in the UK due to wet AMD
The condition can cause significant loss of sight within 3-6 months
50% of those with wet AMD in one eye will have developed it in their second within five years
AMD is the most common cause of blindness in the western world.

It causes the retina to wear out, leaving sufferers with only peripheral vision. It affects two million people in the UK alone, including 40% of people over the age of 75.

The wet form of the disease is by far the most aggressive and accounts for the majority of blindness caused by this condition.

Vision loss

However, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has provisionally decided that there are too many unanswered questions about the effectiveness of the treatment to recommend it for use on the NHS.

In its preliminary report, NICE says that some patients have suffered problems with their sight after undergoing the treatment - including in some cases severe loss of vision.

It also casts doubt about the long-term cost effectiveness of the treatment.

As a result NICE has indicated it will rule that the treatment should not be approved until further clinical trials have been undertaken.

However, Steve Winyard, RNIB head of public policy, said: "If these preliminary recommendations are confirmed, wealthy people in the UK with wet AMD will be able to buy their sight through private treatment, while those with lower incomes will go blind.

"This is wholly unacceptable and must change."

Many benefit

The Macular Disease Society (MDS) said that over the last two years nearly 1,000 people had retained some sight - which they would almost certainly otherwise have lost - as a result of receiving photodynamic therapy.

Don Curran, MDS vice chairman, said: "This means 1,000 people who now have a degree of mobility, independence and other life-enhancing functions which would otherwise have been lost to them, have also been spared, in part at least, the mental anguish which follows sight loss."

In a statement, NICE said it had not yet issued guidance on the use of photodynamic therapy.

It said the guidance is in an early stage of development and had not been finalised.

Anne-Toni Rodgers, NICE Executive Lead for the appraisal of photodynamic therapy said: "We are quite clear that the document contains preliminary views that may change after consultation."

Verteporfin, marketed by the drug firm Novartis as Visudyne, aims to stop the progressive loss of vision associated with wet AMD.

A light-sensitive dye is given by intravenous infusion. A laser then activates the dye to destroy damaged eye cells.

See also:

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28 Nov 01 | Health
NHS delays 'causing blindness'
09 Jan 02 | Health
'Bionic eye' could aid the blind
26 Feb 02 | Health
Eye care 'varies widely'
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