Sunday 4 December 2016

Top neurologist backs cannabis drug for children

Published 25/11/2016 | 02:30

Vera Twomey and her daughter Ava (6) Picture by David Conachy
Vera Twomey and her daughter Ava (6) Picture by David Conachy

The use of medicinal cannabis for patients with severe and potentially life-threatening seizures has been supported by a leading specialist.

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Dr Colin Doherty, a neurologist at St James's Hospital in Dublin, yesterday backed the campaign for its legalisation - which is being spearheaded by Cork mother Vera Twomey.

Ms Twomey said since her daughter Ava, who suffers from epileptic seizures, which can "lift her off the bed" began to take the cannabis treatment, her life has been transformed.

The violent and dangerous seizures previously lasted for up to 90 minutes and she could have several in a day.

Ava suffers from Dravet syndrome and had tried around 11 different drugs to control the seizures.

However, she told the Oireachtas health committee yesterday that she had had only seven seizures in the whole month. Before that she could have seven seizures in two hours.

"It is the best we have done for Ava," she said,

Dr Doherty said the use of medicinal cannabis offered a tantalising new horizon for these disabling seizures.

The evidence for the benefit of a cannabidiol oil derived from the cannabis plant is growing, but as yet the findings are not definitive.

"We could probably come up with some way of administering the drug before the definitive evidence is across the line," he said.

"It is possible to state with confidence that this drug will not work for everyone, will cause intolerable but probably not dangerous side-effects in a few, but for those for who it will work it may be life-saving."

An expert group has been set up by Health Minister Simon Harris to evaluate the benefits and risks and it is set to report at the end of January.

He said the drug would be expensive and would need to be added to the long-term illness scheme.

It is crucial the handful of doctors with expertise in treating these conditions were "brought along" and given the confidence to prescribe it, he added.

"There will be strong voices on both sides of the argument," said Mr Harris.

Lorraine Nolan, head of the Health Products Regulatory Authority, says there is emerging evidence about the use of medicinal cannabis but it is still quite limited.

So far, studies show it is beneficial in treating neuropathic pain, controlling spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and reducing nausea.

But in other areas the evidence is moderate to poor.

Small numbers of patients had been involved in studies, she added.

"We are getting there but we are not there yet in terms of having the evidence to authorise them as medicines," she said.

A medicine that had been authorised had been through a rigorous trial, she pointed out.

So far the evidence on the harms of cannabis has come from the illicit use.

There are studies showing strong links with psychosis and schizophrenia and these are more prevalent in people who are susceptible to mental illness.

It may be possible to allow individual named patients to have access to medicinal cannabis under a special provision in the law. It could be invoked under the discretion of the minister.

It would work by way of an "exemption from prohibition", Ms Nolan added.

Irish Independent

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