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What price hope as HSE rejects new cancer drug?

Can you put a price on life? Can you put a price on health? Can you put a price on hope for people who may be terminally ill?

Every time a new 'wonder drug' comes on the market, must our broke health service always be asked to fund treatment with it in every case ?

This is a debate that has been raging recently about a new drug for the deadly skin cancer melanoma and indeed about other drugs to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS).


But should our health system always agree to fund the provision of these type of drugs that may offer hope for longer survival in cancer or that may improve the quality of life of people with serious illnesses they will have for the rest of their lives?

Here's another hard question: Is the same money not better spent, on for example, improving A&E or other hospital services?

This, it could be argued, could also save lives and improve health.

These are questions the Government and those running the health service must weigh up all the time.

They are certainly legitimate questions.

But another, and far more emotional question is, can you deny, on cost-cutting grounds, access to new and promising drugs to seriously ill patients who would otherwise have no hope left? Drugs that may allow them to live longer or have a better quality of life for a bit longer?

And then you have the really big question.

How can a Government and a society deny people potentially life saving or live-improving drugs while at the same time bailing out the banks for sums of money in a different stratosphere to what these drugs would cost to fund?

The drug ipilimumab, whose brand name is Yervoy, has been approved by the European drugs agency for the treatment of melanoma.


It's a very expensive drug, costing tens of thousands of euro per patient and is not suitable for all melanoma patients.

However, research has shown that many patients given the potential death sentence of a melanoma diagnosis can live longer if treated with it. Yet the HSE has refused to fund it for patients using our cancer services.

Cancer specialist John Crown, however, says patients appeared to actually get cured after treatment with it.

He says the €4m needed to fund provision of the drug is worth it.

In another case, an MS drug called Gilenya has also been turned down for health service use in Ireland by the same process that has denied patients the melanoma drug.

This MS drug has actually been approved for use by the health authorities in the UK.

The melanoma drug has been approved for use in a number of other European countries.

Why do other health systems think it's feasible to fund these drugs which can benefit patients and we don't? Experts point out that many drug treatments that are now used routinely and are of great benefit to patients would never have been made available if the strict rules that are being used now for approving drugs were used in the past.

Okay, admittedly, deciding which health service should get funds and which should not is not easy when the country is broke.

But there are some moral priorities here which boil down to the question -- can you actually put a price of a cash limit on people's lives or their health?

Obviously, not every single new drug must be funded. But surely some system can be introduced where new drugs with a proven benefit to the health of seriously ill people can be made available in a cost effective a way to the patients who need them.

Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com