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Alimta drug limit for asbestos victims

Article from: Herald Sun, August 29, 2007

ONLY half of Australians suffering from the fatal asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma can easily access the sole drug which can relieve their pain, a report shows.

The study released today highlights extreme inequities between states in access to the palliative care drug Alimta for the treatment of mesothelioma.

About 600 Australians are diagnosed annually with the killer cancer of the lung or stomach lining, triggered by exposure to asbestos.

There is no cure but treatment can reduce suffering and extend life for a few months.

However, the drug is not listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) despite long-term campaigning by asbestos activists like Bernie Banton, who was himself diagnosed with the illness last week.

So depending on where a patient lives, they can pay $20,000 for a six-month course.

The report, commissioned by the Asbestos Diseases Foundation and the drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, shows a huge variation in subsidised access.

Government subsidy schemes are in place in NSW and Western Australia but no assistance exists in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania.

Access also varies depending on where and how the patient was exposed to asbestos, and whether that can be proved.

"Overall, the stakeholders consulted for this project suggested that about 35 to 50 per cent of the mesothelioma patients who would benefit from a course of Alimta experience problems obtaining subsidised or compensated access to the treatment,'' the report, by the Allen Consulting Group, says.

It states that "one suggested remedy'' was to add it to the PBS, a move that would cost the federal government $33 million over five years.

The drug is listed for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, making it available to smokers who have developed the disease.

But it has been knocked back for mesothelioma funding three times on the grounds that it is not cost effective.

Asbestos Diseases Foundation president Barry Robson said he hoped the report would spur the government into accepting the fourth request to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) in November.

"We've unashamedly aligned ourselves with the drug company to try and make this happen, because we desperately need it to,'' Mr Robson said.

Professor Douglas Henderson, a specialist in asbestos-related disease at Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, said the argument to subsidise Alimta was "very strong'' because it had been proven to reduce pain and give patients two or three extra months of life.

"To tell these patients it simply isn't cost effective seems heartless,'' Prof Henderson said.

But Professor Martin Tattersall, a renowned professor in cancer medicine at the University of Sydney, said the failure to be cost effective was "a problem''.

"The PBAC have looked at the data and decided that the evidence doesn't meet their criteria and I guess that I trust them to do their job properly,'' Prof Tattersall said.


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