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Help For Patients Who Can't Afford To Save Sight

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HELP FOR PATIENTS WHO CAN'T AFFORD TO SAVE THEIR SIGHT

The private sector is stepping in to provide an innovative, sight-saving therapy to patients suffering from neovascular age-related macular degeneration ("wet" AMD), the leading cause of blindness in New Zealand.

Two health insurers, TOWER and AA, have elected to cover the only clinically proven treatment option for the majority of sufferers of wet AMD, photodynamic therapy, for their policy holders. The Royal New Zealand Returned Servicemen's Association (RNZRSA) has also actively helped some members who were at a very real risk of becoming blind in their second eye after losing sight in their first eye to the condition.

AMD is a degenerative disease of the retina that affects the central field of vision, which is necessary to perform tasks like reading, driving, crossing the road and recognising faces. There are two types of AMD, dry AMD, which is the most common and wet AMD, which is more aggressive and can result in sudden vision loss. In wet AMD, abnormal blood vessels grow into the macula - the area of the retina responsible for all fine, detailed central vision. It is estimated that there are about 15,000 New Zealanders already suffering from wet AMD, with around 1,500 more developing this blinding form of the disease each year.

The condition generally affects people over the age of 50 and until recently there has been little specialists could offer patients. However, a breakthrough technology by Novartis called photodynamic therapy (PDT), also known as Visudyne therapy, has proven successful in halting further vision loss for many patients suffering from wet AMD. In photodynamic therapy, the drug - Visudyne - is injected intravenously into the patient's arm. It selectively accumulates in the abnormal blood vessels growing into the macula. The drug is then activated by shining a non thermal laser light into the patient's eye. Once activated, Visudyne selectively destroys the abnormal blood vessels, stopping the growth of these blood vessels and halting the corresponding vision loss.

Once vision is lost it cannot be restored so the earlier treatment can begin the better. Government funding is not yet available for Visudyne therapy, however RNZRSA senior advisory officer for welfare Margaret Snow says some members have been helped through the organisation's welfare grants.

"We believe that the treatment does help to retard the loss of sight and hope that the Government will reconsider funding it either totally or in part," she says.

Christchurch based retinal specialist Jim Borthwick says it is disappointing that people have to turn to organisations like the RSA, which has limited funds, to save the sight they have.

"If they were in most parts of the western world there would be government support for this treatment. Many of these people have already lost vision in one eye so getting this treatment makes a difference for these people in terms of retaining their independence," he says.

TOWER advises their policy holders to seek pre-approval for all medical procedures, including Visudyne therapy.

AA has covered the treatment for existing members, but is not issuing new policies to cover treatment. New Zealand's biggest medical insurer, Southern Cross covers the cost of the photodynamic laser treatment but does not cover the cost of the drug, Visudyne, which costs $2,500 per treatment.

Lance Woodham, the divisional manager of Novartis Ophthalmics says "We are in discussions with Southern Cross about funding for Visudyne and very much hope that New Zealand's largest health insurer will follow its competitor's lead and broaden access to this sight-saving treatment."

Visudyne therapy has been reimbursed in the US and Europe since 2001, and in Australia since 2002. Discussions with PHARMAC are still ongoing.

ends

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