Monday, 4 February, 2002, 18:06 GMT
An estimated 1,600 Scots with multiple
sclerosis are set to benefit from a deal to make beta interferon available
to all those who may be helped by the drug.
Sufferers north of the border have welcomed the agreement between the government and drug manufacturers.
Not all Scottish health boards have been able to afford the drug, which can slow down the progress of the disease in some sufferers.
But under the risk-sharing scheme announced on Monday, the National Health Service will pay for beta interferon and other similar drugs where they prove effective.
However, the industry will have to foot a proportion of the bill where they are not successful.
Neurologists will now begin the process of assessing patients.
An estimated 10,500 people in Scotland suffer from MS, a disease of the nervous system for which there is no cure.
It is thought that some 1,600 Scottish sufferers will be deemed suitable to receive the drugs over the next 18 months.
The Multiple Sclerosis Society for Scotland said the move was a major victory for sufferers.
It said the previous policy had depended on individual health boards, resulting in the drug being prescribed to some patients in areas such as Aberdeen, but to none in Edinburgh.
"The outcome is a huge victory for people with MS," said director Mark Hazelwood.
"They have campaigned resolutely for years, despite frustration and sometimes despair, during a journey which seemed to have no end in sight.
"I congratulate everyone who has played a part, including those who worked for the recent record-breaking petition to the Scottish Parliament."
He estimated that the move would cost the NHS in Scotland about £7m.
He explained that the drug had been shown to reduce the number and the severity of the attacks experienced by MS sufferers.
These attacks could cause blindness, paralysis, great pain or difficulty in walking and moving.
"Often after these attacks people are left more disabled than they were previously," said Mr Hazelwood.
"Over the longer term the hope is that the drug will reduce the rate at which people become disabled, and that will enable people to continue living independent lives for longer."
Health Minister Malcolm Chisholm confirmed that the Scottish Executive was an equal partner in the UK-wide arrangement.
"MS is a serious and often debilitating condition for those affected," he said.
"Scotland is particularly hard hit, with the one of the highest rates of incidence in the world."
He said the drug seemed to offer respite to some patients but it has proved impossible to predict who will benefit most.
"The cost-effectiveness of treatment with the drug over an extended period is still to be determined," he added.
"That is why the four UK health departments have secured an agreement with five companies on an innovative scheme which will cover the cost of the treatments over the long term."
It is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 patients across the UK could potentially receive the treatment.
At present only approximately 2,000 patients receive these drugs, which cost between £6,500 and £10,000 per patient per year.