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Cancer patients in limbo over drug

August 30, 2007

By Claire Regan

Northern Ireland sufferers of an asbestos cancer that kills within one year could have to wait until late 2009 before the only treatment available gets the go-ahead from the NHS - if it is funded at all.

Asbestos campaigners reacted with "extreme disappointment" today as it emerged that Northern Ireland will be the last UK region to green-light funding for a drug called Alimta which can treat mesothelioma.

This is despite Belfast being one of nine UK hotspots for the incurable lung cancer because of its strong shipbuilding history. And industrial areas of Londonderry are also seen as pockets for asbestos-related illnesses.

Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive cancer which usually kills within a year of diagnosis and is caused by asbestos exposure. It can develop anytime between 10 and 60 years after exposure, with the average at 40 years. Around 50 people die of it in Northern Ireland each year and that is expected to increase until death rates peak in 2015.

Alimta is not a cure, but it is the only treatment available to enhance quality of life and extend life-expectancy.

The drug has already been approved for NHS use by the Scottish Medicines Consortium with sufferers in Scotland benefitting from it on prescription for the past two years.

But the rest of the UK is lagging behind. And because Northern Ireland does not have its own drug authority, it could take two years to fall in line with England and Wales if the drug is licenced in London.

Gerard Carlin joined the Justice for Asbestos Victims North West group after his 56-year-old father Tony, a former Derry mayor, died of mesothelioma in 2002.

He said he was "frustrated and extremely disappointed" to hear of potential delays in prescribing the drug here.

"This is an incredibly aggressive disease and people who have been diagnosed with it generally have about a year to live - they just don't have time to wait for a year or two years," he said.

"It seems a very unfair way to treat mesothelioma sufferers. It's very hard to explain to patients and their families that there is a drug available that can help - but it isn't funded here. I would urge the Department of Health to make a special case of this drug and make it available as soon as possible."

There was a chink of hope for sufferers last month when the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), the medicines authority for England and Wales, made a landmark U-turn on an earlier decision to deny funding for Alimta. A final decision, which had been due next month, has been delayed by at least six weeks after two appeals were lodged with the Institute last Friday.

Nice rulings do not extend to Northern Ireland, but it has formal links with our Department of Health. And according to a Department of Health document outlining how rulings are applied here, it then takes between 12 and 24 months for its advice to come into effect here. That could leave doctors here waiting until late 2009 before they can prescribe Alimta - if the Nice final endorsement goes ahead.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "When Nice publishes its final guidance on Alimta, it will be assessed locally and the Department will issue advice to the health service on its applicability to Northern Ireland. "Where Nice guidance is not yet endorsed for implementation in the health service, the onus rests on the health and social services boards to provide the necessary local guidance on availability of a particular drug or treatment."


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