BY HELEN RUMBELOW, MEDICAL REPORTER
A HEALTH SERVICE watchdog is preparing to rule that the only drug to combat multiple sclerosis should not be prescribed on the NHS because the benefits do not justify the £10,000 cost of a year's treatment.
The future availability of Beta interferon is being decided by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), the government body set up to control the cost of NHS treatments. Its ruling on the drug's "minimal" benefits is preliminary and the institute will wait to hear from organisations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society before making a final decision.
About a tenth of Britain's 85,000 MS sufferers could have a type of the disease that might respond to the drug, although at present only 2,500 receive it. That is because health authorities are unwilling to pay for a drug about which doctors are also equivocal.
Beta interferon, which is manufactured by Schering, has been shown in trials to slow the progress of the disease in some patients, but doctors still cannot predict accurately who will respond to it. Even so, about a tenth of sufferers in America and Australia are prescribed the treatment.
Nice's experts intend that those patients prescribed the drug at present should remain on it, but it believes that health authorities would do better to give patients more rehabilitation therapy, which is not widespread.
Nice refused to comment last night - all parties giving evidence to the institute are bound by confidentiality agreements because the inform ation is commercially sensitive.
The recommendation is now available for appraisal by expert groups and the formal recommendation will be made in three weeks' time. There will then be a ten-day appeal period before the final judgment is passed to the Health Secretary.
A spokesman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is also bound by the confidentiality agreement, said last night that it thought the secrecy surrounding the decision encouraged speculation that was harmful for MS sufferers.
He compared the situation to the judgment on drugs for breast cancer last month, which was heavily leaked beforehand. "We do find it frustrating that this process is not a more open one," he said.
"It is absolutely important that the voice of the people with the condition
should be properly heard, but it is very difficult to see how given