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Threat to Alimta availability after review

By Richard Gray, May 21, 2006

A life-giving drug used to treat patients suffering from a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure may be withdrawn from use in Scotland after English medicine chiefs ruled it too expensive.

Chemotherapy treatment Alimta has been available on the NHS to sufferers of mesothelioma since July last year after being given approval by experts at the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

The cancer, which usually kills within a year of diagnosis, is mainly caused by fibres of asbestos that damage the lungs and affects more than 1,000 people in Scotland. Alimta helps to ease the pain of sufferers and can extend their lives by a precious two to three months.

But health bosses are now reviewing their decision to approve the drug after an initial ruling by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) south of the border stated that it was "not cost effective".

Cancer groups now fear the drug will be withdrawn if the conclusions are repeated in NICE's final report which is due to be published in October 2006.

It is the first time a ruling by NICE has been at odds with a decision by the Scottish Medicines Consortium and campaigners are calling on health officials north of the border to stand by their decision.

Normally decisions by the English body supersede Scottish advice and are effectively rubber-stamped by officials north of the border.

Alex Cunningham, from Clydebank Asbestos Group, said: "Mesothelioma victims have to endure a terrible death in their final days. Alimta helps to ease the pain they are suffering and allows them to die in a dignified manner. For the families and the victims, it is impossible to put a cost on having an extra couple of months together and to die in a dignified way. We want assurances that this drug is not going to be denied to people in Scotland after being offered to them for more than a year."

Every year around 1,700 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK.

There is currently no cure for the disease and Alimta is the only treatment available, despite its limited effect. An 18-week course of the drug costs the NHS around £8,000 with the annual cost to treat all patients in Scotland being £500,000.

Scottish health watchdog NHS Quality Improvement Scotland is now reviewing the decision to offer the drug in Scotland following the recommendations south of the border. It is feared that it may reverse the decision to prescribe Alimta in Scotland.

Clydebank and Milngavie Labour MSP Des McNulty has already sought assurances from the Scottish Executive that the drug would not be withdrawn.

He said: "Nobody is saying Alimta is a cure, but for certain patients it can help to ease their suffering as a palliative medicine. I asked whether the health service in Scotland would fall in line with a final statement from NICE if it continued to restrict the drug, but the Executive has not given any concrete assurances."

Last night a spokesman for NHS Quality Improvement Scotland confirmed that they were reviewing the decision to provide Alimta in Scotland.


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