Friday, 14 February, 2003, 00:22 GMT
A government scheme to provide expensive drugs to some patients with multiple sclerosis is a waste of money, say scientists.
They have suggested the £50m spent on providing beta interferon and glatiramer acetateon on the NHS could be much better spent elsewhere.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence ruled last year that
these drugs were not cost effective and should not be provided on the NHS.
The decision sparked uproar among patient groups. Ministers tried to diffuse the row by announcing the drugs would be provided to certain patients.
Under the scheme, up to 7,000 patients in England and Wales can obtain beta interferon and glatiramer acetateon free on the NHS.
Only those patients in certain stages of the disease are eligible, representing about one in seven with the disease.
Scientists have criticised the policy. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, they said all patients with MS should benefit from any extra money.
They also suggested some of the money could be used to compare beta interferon and glatiramer with cheaper alternatives.
They wrote: "Uncertainty remains about the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of interferon beta and glatiramer."
They added: "All patients with multiple sclerosis, whether eligible for treatment under the terms of the scheme or not, deserve much better than this."
In a second study, published in The Lancet, researchers suggested interferon beta helped patients in their first year of taking the drug.
But they said results after two years were inconclusive and side-effects were common.
But Mike O'Donovan, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said these drugs had transformed people's lives.
He backed the government's scheme but said further research would be welcome.
"The MS Society believes this scheme is an appropriate way to gain long-term knowledge of the drugs in use," he said.
"The society fully supports the widest possible research into other potential treatments and investment in better services for all people with MS," he said.
"This, however, must be additional, and not alternative to the available disease-modifying therapies."
The Department of Health dismissed the research saying its scheme for MS patients was the best way forward.
A spokesman said: "Debates around the effectiveness of beta-interferon have been going on for decades.
"The bottom line is that patients suffer while academics argue, and we are not prepared to see that continue.
"It was precisely to take into account the specific issues and long term uncertainties affecting the use of beta interferon that we developed the common-sense and innovative scheme that this report criticises.
"Under that scheme, if the drug benefits patients the NHS will pay for
it. If the drug does not, the NHS will receive a refund from the manufacturer."
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