Plea for new arthritis drug to be funded on Ulster NHS
The Department of Health has been urged to ensure that a new drug which has given hope to thousands of arthritis patients is funded on the NHS in Northern Ireland.
SDLP health spokeswoman Carmel Hanna said it was time the department " acknowledged the seriousness of arthritis by raising the standard of care and treatments available to patients".
The Stormont health committee member was speaking out after news of a surprise decision to approve NHS funding of the antibody drug MabThera in England and Wales.
The National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) ruled that MabThera was a cost-effective treatment for patients severely affected by the rheumatoid arthritis.
The final recommendation from the authority means doctors in England and Wales can now prescribe the drug to NHS patients who have not responded to other therapies.
The drug is already freely available to patients with rheumatoid arthritis in Scotland following a similar decision by Nice's counterpart, the Scottish Medicines Consortium.
Nice guidelines do not extend to Northern Ireland, but it has formal links with our Department of Health which usually follows its rulings.
"Many new drugs are not available to patients in the north of Ireland including MabThera. Patients here are facing long and uncertain waits for treatments," Mrs Hanna said.
"The SDLP believe that access to clinically effective drugs that enhance quality of life should be a given right.
"Arthritis is a long-term disabling illness that needs long term treatment and support. Patients here should not have to live in unnecessary pain if there are drugs available to help."
Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful and sometimes crippling auto-immune disease that affects an estimated 400,000 people in the UK. It occurs when the immune system attacks the joints, causing swelling and damage of cartilage and bone.
MabThera's relative low cost is the reason why it was approved. At £4,657 to treat one patient for a year, the drug is still almost half as expensive as other therapies.
Today's announcement for England and Wales was welcomed by the patient charity Arthritis Care.
Chief executive Neil Betteridge, who has had RA since the age of three, said: "It's a triumph. The search for effective treatment can be a long, agonising journey, littered with dashed hopes.
"Now there is no excuse for denying this drug on any but clinical grounds.
"Nice has shown that it understands the benefit of expanding the range of choices for individuals who have exhausted other options, and would otherwise face the bleak prospect of palliative care, and a return to drugs that have already failed them."