By Peter Stevenson
The Health Ministry is doing its best to get medication to patients with thalassaemia and multiple sclerosis despite having its hands tied after it had its budget slashed by parliament, Minister Petros Petrides said yesterday.
Petrides was responding to allegations by the head of Thalassaemia Association in the local press that eleven of its members had died before being approved to receive Exjade, a drug used for the treatment of the condition.
“The Health Ministry had prepared a budget which was the lowest figure we could come up with to ensure the smooth operation but that was unfortunately reduced by a further €7m,” Petrides said.
That has meant a number of medications were unable to be purchased, but Petrides said that efforts were underway to find funds to meet patients’ needs.
“We have asked the Finance Ministry to intervene and rectify what we believe was a mistake in cutting the money and we are waiting for a reply,” he said.
Natalia Michaelidou, head of the Thalassaemia Association was quoted by the daily Phileleftheros as saying that patients were in despair following the death of 11 people who were unable to receive the necessary treatment.
“The severe delay in the approval of patients to receive the drug has meant four patients who got on the list late lost their lives, while seven others who were on the waiting list also lost their lives,” she said.
Exjade’s main use is to reduce chronic iron overload in patients who receive long-term blood transfusions for conditions such as thalassaemia and other chronic anaemias. It is marketed in Cyprus by Novartis.
Last November, the health ministry ordered an investigation into the supply of Exjade after alleged irregularities were found in its purchase and supply dating back to 2011.
The cause of these 11 deaths, Michaelidou explained, was due to an iron overload in the patients and the inefficiency of the other two alternative treatments for the condition.
“We may not have been able to save all of them but some of them may still have been with us right now if they had received the medication,” she said.
She explained that the government placed certain restrictions on the import and purchase of Exjade as it was deemed an expensive drug. Due to these restrictions, she added, and in complete contrast to other countries where the drug is administered a lot more, it was only prescribed to patients who were not responding to the other two available treatments.
“Once a doctor prescribes it, the patient must then be approved by a special committee and then by a pharmaceutical committee before receiving the drug,” she said.
In its response, the Health Ministry said that certain procedures and protocols need to be followed to approve the prescription of specific medication for chronic disorders.
“Doctors are not forbidden from prescribing the drug but all requests are studied by an Ad Hoc Thalassaemia Committee, comprised of doctors and clinical pharmacists. The request is then sent to the Pharmaceutical Committee which determines what treatments or restrictions need to be followed to ensure the rational use of medication,” the Ministry said.
The Health Ministry concluded that it has begun procedures to provide Exjade to patients who were approved by both committees in October.
On Tuesday, the Health Ministry was accused of not supplying the required medication to multiple sclerosis (MS) patients.
In a statement, the MS association said that more than 20 patients were approved by the health ministry’s medical council to receive a specific medication but were later told it was not suitable and they should wait for a replacement. Ten months later, this has not yet materialised and patients have not been told when they can expect it.
The association said the condition of many of the patients was worsening and in some cases has become irreversible.