A multiple sclerosis (MS) study has shocked experts into calling for an end to the UK’s current 'wait and see' approach to treatment.
For the last several decades it has always been assumed that drug treatment for multiple sclerosis patients should be delayed until patients really need it.
But the results of a 21-year study that was published in 2012 shocked experts into a U-turn in their thinking. The study comprehensively showed that MS patients who were given beta interferon at the beginning of their illness were half as likely to have died than those who were simply given a placebo and put on medication three years later when the trial ended.
When experts reviewed the evidence, they concluded that even when people exhibited mild symptoms of MS and the disease appeared to come and go, there can still be irreversible damage done to the nervous system caused by the body’s own immune response. If patients are given early treatment however, the drugs may be able to prevent or delay this.
Nick Rijke, Director of Policy and Research at the MS Society said, “The treatment pattern that had evolved in the UK was ‘wait and see’ - see how bad your MS is and then we will consider treatment.
“It was partly based on a misunderstanding of what MS is doing to people. The old understanding was around big, significant relapses. It was assumed that between those relapses, MS was effectively going away. But MRI scans showed an undercurrent of disease activity which is causing damage all the time.”
Calls have now been made for neurologists to begin drug treatment as soon as possible after someone has been diagnosed with MS. Although this can often take time because treatment options are complex and modern drugs can cause serious side effects, experts maintain that a treatment plan should ideally be in place within six months. In addition, patients should also undergo an MRI scan at least once every 12 months.
According to a survey by the MS Society, MS affects around 100,000 people in the UK, but only 40% of whom are receiving treatment. The UK is currently ranked at a dismal 25 out of 27 European countries prescribed these treatments, with only Poland and Romania doing worse.
At present, the most common treatment option for early-stage MS is ‘wait and see.’ This needs to change and it is important that neurologists and healthcare professionals recognise the urgency needed to fight diseases like MS and end the ‘wait and see’ culture that has become so ingrained in our health service.
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