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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 18:41 GMT
MS patients in Commons protest

More than 1,000 patients attended the protest
More than a thousand multiple sclerosis sufferers lobbied their MPs at Parliament on Wednesday to demand access to the best treatments.

Demanding access to best treatment
The organisers say the biggest mass protest involving MS patients in the UK was meant to expose the failure of the NHS to give them both the drugs and other therapies they need.

Their main concern is the future of the controversial drug beta-interferon, which has been proven to help some MS patients.

This is available in some parts of the country, but not in others - and MS charities fear further restrictions.

A poll commissioned by charity the MS Society suggested that nine out of 10 neurologists wanted to be able to prescribe the drug.

But many sufferers say that they also struggle to receive specialist nursing care, physiotherapy, pain control treatment and respite care.

Peter Cardy, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said it was the first mass lobby of Parliament ever staged by people with MS.

"The large number reflects anger and frustration across the country at inadequate levels of healthcare.

"People with MS wonder if the government actually thinks they are worth treating."

Multiple Sclerosis is a progressively disabling condition in which the delicate nerves in patients' spinal cords are left unprotected, and become damaged.

Only treatment

Beta-interferon is the only drug which has been shown to slow the progression of the illness in certain types of patient.

Those taking the drug still become more disabled, but the rate of decline is less.

However, some health authorities refuse to fund it because they believe it is not effective enough to justify a price tag of many thousands of pounds a year per patient.

A new government advisory body, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, is currently examining the arguments for and against beta-interferon, and will either recommend it is funded nationwide, or not at all.

Its role is to balance clinical effectiveness against cost - but it has pledged to take into account all the wider economic costs and savings involved in treating MS patients.

For example, if treating an MS patient with the drug stopped him or her becoming wheelchair-bound for an extra year, then the extra cost of care - and any loss of productivity to the economy would be measured.

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