The Department of Health has confirmed that two cannabis-based medicinal products used in the treatment of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis will soon be made available in Northern Ireland.
In response to a letter from Derry MLA, Mark H. Durkan, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health (DoH) Richard Pengelly welcomed the recent publication of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance on the use of two cannabis-based medicinal products, Epidyolex for epilepsy and Sativex for multiple sclerosis.
It will provide additional support to specialist clinicians who may wish to prescribe cannabis-based medicinal products.
More than a year on from the legalisation of medical cannabis in Northern Ireland, it remains out of reach for the vast majority of patients.
In a statement to the Derry News the DoH acknowledged that “very low” numbers have been able to avail of the drug in NI due to a “cautious” approach by doctors and “limited evidence”.
High-profile cases whose medical conditions appeared to be improved by cannabis oil, include that of Billy Caldwell from Tyrone whose mother has campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis after seeing at first-hand how it helped to control her son’s epileptic seizures.
At A High Court hearing in Belfast earlier this month, the Home Office was asked to break the deadlock over securing medicinal cannabis for 14-year-old Billy.
Presiding Judge, Mrs Justice Keegan expressed surprise that no solution has been found for the child.
"I have difficulty getting my head around it. They say it's the right treatment, but nobody will write the prescription," the judge said.
The DoH has a formal link with NICE whereby guidance is locally reviewed for applicability to Northern Ireland and, where appropriate, endorsed for implementation in Health and Social Care (HSC).
This link ensures that Northern Ireland has access to up-to- date, independent, professional, evidence-based guidance on the value of health care interventions, and this new guidance for clinicians will be reviewed in line with these established processes.
The Department will consider the relevant NICE guidance on Epidyolex once it has been
finalised by NICE. Final guidance is expected in the coming weeks.
In the interim, the HSC Board can commission this drug and, as part of that process, inform health service providers of the arrangements in place.
NICE has published guidance on cannabis-based medicinal products (NG144), such as Sativex, and recommends their use for the treatment of muscle stiffness and spasms, known as spasticity, in multiple sclerosis.
This clinical guideline is due for endorsement by the Department on the 3 Jan 2020 following an 8
week consultation period.
SDLP Health Spokesperson Mark H Durkan has welcomed the response from the Department of Health in relation to his call to secure cannabis-based treatment for epilepsy and MS.
The Foyle MLA said: “It is great to finally see positive movement here in relation to life-enhancing cannabis-based medicines, following similar approvals in England.
“Confirmation of progress will no doubt be welcome news for many campaigners and people living with debilitating conditions like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. It’s been a long, hard-fought journey and we’re not there yet but this is a step in the right direction.
“This is an issue that I and the SDLP have worked hard to progress and prior to the collapse of the Assembly, I met with the previous Health Minister to discuss the importance of the legislating on medicinal cannabis here.
“So I am pleased the Department have taken up the baton to ensure that patients here can access the same treatments available across the water.
“However, it is lamentable that it took Billy Caldwell to take extremely ill before movement was made on this issue. And that Stormont stalemate has delayed this vital decision almost three years and counting.”
He continued: “There must be a compassionate response to those with chronic illnesses. By securing this life-changing treatment we can improve the lives of many people here living with debilitating illnesses. People cannot continue to wait in pain.”
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