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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 November, 2003, 03:40 GMT
Over-the-counter heart drugs plan
Statins cost the NHS 440m annually
The government is pushing ahead with plans to make the heart drugs, statins, available over the counter in chemists.

The cholesterol-lowering drugs, currently available on prescription only, save about 7,000 lives a year.

They are currently restricted to those at a high risk of heart attack, but ministers believe they could save more lives if made more easily available.

But GP groups are concerned the government is transferring the cost of statins from the NHS onto the patient.

Health Secretary John Reid is set to announce the start of a nine-week consultation period on the move to over-the-counter sales on Monday.

Pharmacists should be able to supply the drug, Zocor Heart Pro, after simple health checks carried out on the spot, according to the consultation paper.

Just as people have the choice to give up smoking and improve their diet, we want them to be able to choose a medicine that will reduce the risk of coronary heart disease
Health secretary John Reid
Dr Reid said experts believed many people would benefit if statins were more widely available, "possibly saving hundreds of lives per year".

"Giving people the chance to buy a preventative medicine that they would not otherwise be able to get must be right," he said.

Statins are the most widely prescribed and therefore the most expensive item on the NHS drugs bill.

About one million prescriptions are issued each month in the UK, at an annual cost of 440m.

This is despite the fact the drugs are currently restricted to those with a 30% chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years.

Stroke risk cut

The government wants the low-dosage statin drug Zocor to go on sale for about 5 a week.

It would be available for those at both high and moderate risk of heart attack.

Studies have shown that statins could also potentially benefit patients with other problems.

Patients who take statins within days of having a heart attack halve their risk of going on to have a stroke, scientists have found.

Other studies have suggested statins can protect against Alzheimer's, some eye conditions and brittle bones.

Scientists have even suggested the drugs could also help to slow down the advance of multiple sclerosis.

Significant step

Dr Jim Kennedy, of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the move would mark the first time that a potentially life-saving drug was made available over-the-counter.

"To date, all drugs available over the counter have been for symptom control however, the prescribing of statins is about the prevention, or treatment, of those at significant risk of heart disease or stroke.

"This raises the issue as to whether we, as a society, want healthcare costs to be financed by society as a whole or if we want some healthcare costs moved to patients as individuals.

"The proposed move could potentially affect a large population as the Department of Health is suggesting over-the-counter statins could be made available for those with mild to moderate risk of cardiovascular disease."

Dr Kennedy said there was very little research evidence of statins being beneficial for those at low risk.

"This proposed move also underlines the need for the sharing of relevant clinical information between pharmacists, GPs and other members of the Primary Healthcare Team.

"Pharmacists currently do not have access to a patient's medical record which would help them judge whether statins were necessary.

"There would also need to be a system in place for pharmacists to inform GPs about patients to whom statins have been prescribed."

Shadow Health and Education Secretary Tim Yeo welcomed the fact that the government was consulting on the issue.

However, he said it was vital that the public was not put at risk, and that access to the drugs was not restricted only to hose who can afford them.

The BBC's Sophie Hutchinson
"The statins available over the counter would be of a low dosage"

Statins cut diabetes deaths
13 Jun 03  |  Health
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Call for heart drug lifesaver
04 Jul 02  |  Health

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