April 12 2004
SO distressing is multiple sclerosis that it can be difficult to argue with the supply of any substance which sufferers say relieves their symptoms. As it was with the use of cannabis – now being trialled for medical use – so it appears to be with Naltrexone. Those who have used it, and their families, say it has given them a quality of life they feared had gone forever. As one teenager told The Herald: "I feel like I have my mum back now." So why do people with MS have to buy the drug privately while heroin addicts receive it free on the NHS
The answer is not a simple one of supply and demand gone wrong. Naltrexone, because it blocks receptors in the brain which allow heroin and other drugs to have a "pleasurable" effect, helps opiate addicts control their cravings. The longer they can control these, the more chance they have of eventually coming off drugs. When people with MS take the same drug in a fraction of the quantity, the blocking of receptors appears to relieve pain and boosts the immune system. Same drug, different quantities, significant benefits.
In Scotland in particular, which has one of the highest rates of MS in the world, it seems odd not to take advantage of drug which has already gone through extensive trials and been found to have proven benefits. The problem is that while Naltrexone is licensed for use by opiate addicts in 50mg doses, it is not licensed to be used in the kind of tiny quantities – 4.5mg and less – MS sufferers take.
The answer lies not in making Naltrexone available to all on demand
today, but in holding trials specifically among people with MS, as some
are already demanding. That will be of little comfort to those who fear
that a further round of expensive testing will only delay the introduction
of the drug on the NHS for people with MS. But it is essential that it
is tested among a wide range of people with the condition to find out if
there are any side effects. Evidence from among a small sample of users,
albeit encouraging, is not the same as a proper trial. MS may be a uniquely
debilitating condition but those who suffer from it have a right to expect
the same safeguards as every other patient.
Copyright © 2004, Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited