MS nurse shortage in Northern Ireland puts patients in danger, says charity chief
Northern Ireland is suffering from a critical shortage of MS nurses - despite having one of the highest prevalence rates of the disease in the world.
The revelation comes as a report from the Multiple Sclerosis Trust highlighted that two out of three sufferers in the UK lived in an area with a shortage of specialist nurses.
In Northern Ireland there are 4,500 MS patients, but only 12 full-time MS nurses across the entire region.
The lifelong condition damages the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord and can lead to blindness, muscle weakness and paralysis.
The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast only has six dedicated MS nurses for almost 600 MS patients.
The Northern Health Social Care Trust in Antrim has one part-time position - which is currently vacant.
Amy Bowen, Director of Service Development at the MS Trust, said: "The dangerous lack of specialist nurses can have grave consequences for people with MS.
"They may have to rely on non-specialist support for what is a highly complex disease."
Patricia Gordon, Director of MS Society Northern Ireland, said: "Our current MS nurses are fantastic but they're hugely overstretched.
"MS is really unpredictable, and people living with the condition tell us how important MS nurses are to them in getting the information and care they need."
Ms Gordon pointed out that the shortage of dedicated nurses meant that vital resources, such as the MS Helpline, were not regularly available.
She said: "Northern Ireland needs both more MS nurses and specialist neurologists to provide equitable care and meet the needs of people with MS."
Some MS treatment options in Northern Ireland have improved in recent years and more than 75% of patients have access to drugs that slow down the disease's damage.
But the shortage of nurses also means that MS patients in Northern Ireland are having to wait longer to see consultant neurologists, despite government guidelines saying that every MS patient should have at least one comprehensive annual check-up.
The MS Society has called on Stormont to support its "End the Wait" campaign to improve access to MS resources for patients.
Ms Gordon said: "We have been advocating for an MS Network to make the best use of our highly skilled MS specialists, enabling more dedicated MS clinics, improving patient outcomes and ending the wait for MS services."
The Health and Social Care Board said it was in the process of commissioning a review of MS services to find ways to deliver more consistent provision across Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson said the HSC Board would also explore the best way to ensure closer co-operation between NHS Trusts in Northern Ireland, to help deliver the best possible care.
They also emphasised the importance of a "multidisciplinary" approach to treating MS, including neurologists, nurses, physiotherapists and volunteers.