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Foot-dragging over cancer drug a scandal

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 29/09/2016

It is incredible that hundreds of women in Northern Ireland are being denied a drug that could save, or at least prolong, their lives. Stock image
It is incredible that hundreds of women in Northern Ireland are being denied a drug that could save, or at least prolong, their lives. Stock image

It is incredible that hundreds of women in Northern Ireland are being denied a drug that could save, or at least prolong, their lives. A leading breast cancer research charity says only a quarter of eligible patients are getting the bisphosphonates, which can reduce the risk of the disease spreading.

It is equally incredible the reason the other three-quarters of patients are losing out is uncertainty over who should pay for the treatment.

This is scandalous. The drug costs 43p a day and that includes the cost of consultants and follow-up monitoring. It is a measly sum - around £156 a year - but the benefits are enormous. Not only would it save or prolong lives, but it would also save the NHS large sums of money by reducing the need for tests and treatment of women with secondary cancers.

How do you put a price on any person's life? But what women in Northern Ireland are doing, according to the charity, is paying with their lives for the inertia of health authorities in addressing this problem.

Yet recently the chair of the health committee at Stormont said she would not be opposed to the introduction of the PREP drug, which can prevent HIV. This is a vastly more expensive medication, potentially costing up to £400 a month per patient. While cost would be a factor in its introduction, that would have to be weighed against the cost of treating someone with HIV, she said.

Why has the same logic not been applied to the bisphosphonates?

Healthcare in Northern Ireland seems to stumble from crisis to crisis and it is clear that there needs to be a comprehensive debate on how to make the NHS here as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Failure to begin that debate will result in lives continuing to be lost needlessly.

There is no point in continuing the piecemeal sticking plaster approach that has been adopted to date whenever a crisis emerges in the health service which only results in short-term gains.

It is a service groaning under the weight of management from departmental level downwards and yet it seems increasingly difficult for decisions to be made. In this case no one seems certain on who should fund the bisphosphonates treatment for women with breast cancer who can benefit from the medication.

How can such a fundamental flaw in the process be allowed to develop, never mind continue?

Belfast Telegraph

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