SUFFERERS of debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and the often fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma will have access to two new drugs, as cabinet is expected today to approve subsidising their cost.
Without subsidy, Enbrel, a drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which afflicts half a million Australians, costs $18,000 a year. MabThera, a treatment for aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, sets patients back $24,000 a year.Health Minister Kay Patterson will take her submission to cabinet today for Enbrel and MabThera to be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, dramatically reducing the cost for patients.Enbrel and MabThera are expected to be approved for widespread availability, after heavy lobbying from interest groups.The decision to subsidise the expensive drugs will increase pressure to rein in the costs of the $5 billion-a-year PBS which provides affordable medicines to the community.The cost to taxpayers of listing Enbrel and MabThera on the PBS, will be significant.Enbrel alone is expected to cost $20 million in the first year of listing on the PBS – possibly climbing to $50 million in the second year.For this reason, it is expected access to both drugs will be strict, with limits on the amount of people prescribed the treatment and referrals required by specialists.Both Enbrel and MabThera are described as ‘new-generation’ high-technology, gene therapy treatments.Enbrel, manufactured by Wyeth, has been available for several years in the US. It is injected into the affected area, and targets and stifles the body’s Tumor Necrosis Factor chemicals, thought to cause arthritis-associated inflammation.Rheumatoid arthritis costs the nation’s healthcare system an estimated $700 million a year. The disease is so crippling half of sufferers are forced to leave the workforce within a decade of diagnosis.MabThera, developed by Roche and already available in 45 countries, was approved for Australian use more than 12 months ago. Despite lobby ing by advocacy and medical groups, it has struggled to be made widely available.Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph cells that attacks bone marrow and can spread throughout the body. Aggressive versions spread rapidly and if left untreated can be fatal within a year.’When MabThera is combined with chemotherapy, it improves treatment response rates, and in clinical trials has reduced the risk of death by up to 36 per cent,’ said John Seymour, head of the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Service at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute.Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the sixth-most common form of cancer in Australia, striking about 4000 people and is among the fastest-growing cancers. About 1000 new aggressive cases are diagnosed each year.(Source: The Australian, By Steve Lewis and Monica Videnieks, June 10, 2003)