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Friday, 10 December, 1999, 08:46 GMT
MS drug 'should be restricted'

Wheelchair patient Multiple sclerosis can cause severe disability

Prescribing of a controversial multiple sclerosis (MS) drug should be restricted and the funds saved used to improve support services for sufferers, researchers have said.

Interferon beta-1b has been shown to benefit MS patients, but it is extremely expensive, and some health authorities refuse to sanction its use on the grounds that its benefit is not significant enough.

The drug is currently being considered by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) which will issue national guidelines on its use next year.

A team of experts from Scotland assessed whether using interferon beta-1b was any more effective than other established forms of treatment for MS patients with the secondary progressive form of the disease.

I begin to think some people actually believe MS is not worth treating
Peter Cardy, chief executive, Multiple Sclerosis Society
Secondary progressive MS is marked by a gradual, but continuous decline. Patients tend to become disabled more quickly than those suffering from the relapsing-remitting form of the disease.

The researchers found that treating a patient with interferon beta-1b costs more than 9,600 a year.

This, they argue, is a very high cost compared with the modest effect that the drug has on improving quality of life compared with other treatments.

Drug delays the disease

A recent trial showed that interferon could benefit all secondary progressive MS patients. While not a cure, it can delay the progression of the disease by roughly a year.

Beta-interferon has also been shown in studies to benefit to those with "relapsing-remitting" MS, in which the sufferer's condition is stable in between "attacks", which prove gradually more disabling.

The evidence has led to calls for the drug to be made available to all patients with that form of the disease.

The Scottish researchers argue, however, that resources could probably be better spent on other ways improving quality of life for patients such as rehabilitation, physiotherapy and alternative drug therapies.

Researcher Dr Robert Swingler, a consultant neurologist at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School, Dundee, said the study showed that over a 30 month period the drug would only prevent one MS attack in every three patients.

He said locally funds were only available to treat one per cent of MS patients with interferon, and the money could be spent more effectively on other treatments.

Conclusion attacked

Peter Cardy, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said clinical care should be additional to drug therapy, and not an alternative to them.

He said: "Beta interferon is the only drug to impact on the underlying progress of MS and there is unequivocal medical evidence that it can significantly improve the quality of life for many people with MS."

Mr Cardy said the study failed to take into account the impact of the remitting-relapsing form of the disease, or the fact that interferon can help patients who suffer from this type of MS.

"The overwhelming majority of MS specialists want to be able to prescribe beta interferon. They should not have to make treatment judgements on the basis of what's in the piggy bank which is what is happening here.

"I begin to think some people actually believe MS is not worth treating."

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See also:
06 Nov 98 |  Health
Controversial MS drug makes 'huge difference'
09 Sep 99 |  Health
Race against time for MS drug
30 Nov 98 |  Medical notes
Multiple sclerosis
30 Nov 98 |  Health
NHS accused of failing MS patients
06 Aug 99 |  Health
NHS agenda for expensive drugs
02 Sep 99 |  Health
NHS rationing: The key areas

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