Asbestos Victims Lobby Parliament
On October 17, 2006, asbestos victims and their supporters from all over the UK converged on the House of Commons to lobby MPs about the threat to withdraw government funding for the use of Alimta, the only drug licensed in the UK to treat mesothelioma, a virulent form of asbestos cancer.1 Although the current situation is far from perfect, with some Primary Care Trusts (PCT) funding the drug's use and others not, if the National Centre for Clinical Excellence (NICE) withdraws the drug's license, it will no longer be prescribed by the National Health Service in the UK.
The protestors who crowded into Committee Room 21 included asbestos sufferers, trade unionists, doctors, victim support representatives and public health campaigners.
During a two hour meeting, chaired by Michael Clapham MP (above left), Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Committee, and attended by more than 40 MPs, asbestos sufferers described a post-code lottery where patients in some regions received the drug while others resident elsewhere were denied it. Dr. Hilary Calvert, one of the first specialists to use Alimta in the UK, confirmed the benefits to patients, some of whom experienced a significant shrinkage in their tumours; although, the drug's effects are not always so spectacular, Alimta has improved the quality of life for many patients. John Battle, MP for West Leeds, spoke for many of the politicians present when he condemned the plans to withdraw government funding for this drug. Bill Olner, MP for Nuneaton, said it was criminal to reduce treatment for real people with real problems. Bridget Prentice, MP for Lewisham East, said that a few months ago the Government had over-turned a House of Lords ruling which would have denied compensation to many mesothelioma claimants; ensuring that Alimta was available for their medical treatment should be an integral part of ensuring that those who are injured receive their just entitlements.
One retired GP, himself a mesothelioma sufferer, described how treatment with Alimta had transformed his condition over the last year.
In 2005, his weight had plummeted to 60 kilograms; thanks to Alimta he had regained 11 kilograms and was feeling much better. He was looking forward to his last chemotherapy session which was scheduled in two days (October 19). Diane McLellan and her sister Lynne Squibb told the meeting that their Father had been denied treatment with Alimta and died just 10 months after his diagnosis. Diana said:
We feel that it is a disgrace that people who get this dreadful disease through no fault of their own are not being given access to a treatment which could give a better quality of life.
Louise Dowd's Mother, Ethel Hallam, was prescribed Alimta by her doctor; just before the treatment was due to begin, Ms. Hallam was informed that the Derbyshire PCT would not fund its use on financial grounds. If Mrs. Hallam had lived in Stockport instead of Whaley Bridge, she would have been eligible for Alimta under the rules of the Manchester PCT. After attending the meeting, Ms. Hallam's MP, Tom Levitt said: Ten days ago I had never heard of Alimta, but this afternoon has convinced me that it would be a travesty if approval is withheld.
John McClean, of the GMB trade union, pledged his union's support for the lobby saying:
Mesothelioma sufferers have paid the price with their health and their lives because of the negligence of employers. If the only licensed treatment for mesothelioma is withdrawn, innocent victims will be sent away without hope.
Trade unionist Tom Hardacre, from Amicus, recalled the many union members in the construction industry who had died from asbestos cancer and demanded that all available means be mobilized to help them fight their illnesses.
MPs agreed to make their views known to the Health Secretary; a delegation of MPs will seek meetings with the Health Secretary and Prime Minister Blair before October 27, 2006, when NICE's decision on Alimta is expected to be made final.
October 20, 2006
1 Pemetrexed disodium (Alimta) in combination with Cisplatin is the only licensed treatment for chemotherapy-nave patients with unresectable malignant pleural mesothelioma in the UK.