Monday, 4 February, 2002, 12:31 GMT
The NHS will pay for expensive MS drugs for thousands of patients - despite its own advisory body ruling them out.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) - has ruled that drugs such as beta interferon and glatiramer acetate are not currently cost effective for the NHS.
However, ministers have softened the blow to patients by negotiating a massive programme with pharmaceutical firms which will mean that many who could benefit from the drug will get it anyway.
The initiative will cost health authorities and primary care trusts an estimated £50m a year - but ministers are not making any extra funds available specifically for this purpose.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn said: "Today we can go a long way towards ending the uncertainty that has affected thousands of people with MS. For years they have suffered from the legacy of postcode prescribing.
"Beta interferon has a unique history which demands a unique solution. Uncertainty about the effectiveness of treatment for MS has led to thousands of patients missing out."
Only those with certain forms of the disease would be eligible, and patients would have to fit other criteria before receiving the drugs.
Even so, this would mean between 8,000 and 10,000 patients in the UK could potentially take part.
At present only approximately 2,000 patients receive these drugs, which cost between £6,500 and £10,000 per patient per year.
The drugs will be paid for by the NHS - but funding will be gradually withdrawn if there is evidence that they are not working for an individual patient.
Dr Martin Toal, the medical director of Biogen, one of the leading producers of beta interferon, said that the decision should eventually mean that UK patients had the same access to the drug as those in other EU countries or the US.
He said: "In the case of a debilitating disease like MS, the human, let alone the economic cost of allowing the disease to deteriorate to a point where full-time care is needed, greatly outweighs the cost of preventing disease progression.
"It is regrettable that the delay in arriving at this position today has meant that some people with MS may now have missed the opportunity to benefit, because of their disease progression." .
The "risk sharing" arrangement has been broadly welcomed by patient groups such as the MS Trust.
Christine Jones, Chief Executive of the MS Trust said: "At long last people with MS in the UK will have the same opportunities as citizens of other countries."
A statement issued jointly by the Association of British Neurologists, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the MS Trust and the UK MS Specialist Nurses Association "warmly welcomed" the scheme.
It said: "This will be a major undertaking. There will be heavy demand on health authorities and primary care trusts to fund the treatments."
In theory, MS patients eligible for the trial should be contacted by their specialist neurologist.
However, as each patient will have to be assessed prior to enrollment on the scheme, there is likely to be some delay before every eligible patient is receiving the drug.
Multiple Sclerosis is a degenerative condition affecting the sheath which encloses the spinal cord, insulating the electrical impulses it carries from the brain to the muscles.
The result can be disabling "relapses" which over time cause cumulative disability.
There is some evidence that beta interferon, can, in some patients, decrease the frequency of the relapses, thus slowing down the progressive decline of the patient.
However, many doctors believe that, for the price of the drugs, other services for MS patients - which they think would offer more benefit - could be improved.
The MS Society has set up a special information line for enquiries about the Department of Health scheme on 020 8438 0862.
MS Drugs: Which patients should qualify