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NZers Going Blind - Lack of Access to Treatments

6th December 2007: Media statement

More New Zealanders Going Blind than Previously Thought Because of Lack of Access to New Treatments

Thousands more New Zealanders will go blind unnecessarily, than previously thought, because they cannot get access to a newly developed treatment, which is funded in other developed countries, according to a world expert on age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness.

Speaking in Perth, Western Australia at the annual conference of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) last week, Professor Paul Mitchell explained that previous estimates on how many New Zealanders suffered from AMD were too low.

Professor Mitchell, Head of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Sydney, Director of the Eye Centre at Westmead Hospital and a world expert in the epidemiology of Macular Degeneration said his calculations show: `There are already 16,500 patients with neovascular AMD in New Zealand. Conservatively, I estimate that another 3,000 New Zealanders will develop NV AMD every year, that’s eight every day of the year. Two thirds of them will go blind in that eye within 12 months and it is a highly symmetrical disease and a lot of people do get it in the second eye within a year. This can be treated by Lucentis, which is extraordinarily effective and has been well proven to be a solid, evidence-based medicine.’

In the first two months of funding by Australia’s pharmaceutical benefits scheme more than three thousand patients were treated with the eye-sight saving medicine, but New Zealand eye specialists attending the meeting were told that it was unlikely Pharmac would fund Lucentis here.

Professor Mitchell said `Every year we could save 2,000 New Zealanders from blindness. It’s a huge number with a huge cost because visual impairment leads to a whole range of events such as falls, hip fractures which are very costly. Then there is increased use of support services and the big thing is the need to go into a nursing home for care much earlier than otherwise would be the case.’

The launch of a new class of drugs to treat AMD is a major step forward in treatment of the disease, according to RANZCO. Lucentis has been available on private prescription in New Zealand since 21st July 2007, but Pharmac has turned it down for government subsidy claiming that it is up to each District Health Board to arrange provision locally.

According to RANZCO spokesman Associate Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Auckland University Philip Polkinghorne: `Before the introduction of these new drugs we believed that once vision has been damaged, it couldn’t be restored. But research has shown that visual acuity can actually be significantly improved with Lucentis (ranibizumab) in around 25-40% of patients studied, and across all lesion types of wet AMD.’

AMD is a degenerative eye disease that affects the macula – the central part of the retina at the back of the eye that is responsible for the “straight ahead” central vision necessary for everyday activities like reading, driving, colour perception, telling time or identifying faces. The majority of wet AMD patients experience severe vision loss within two years of diagnosis. Until now there has been little public education about Wet AMD because very little could be done to manage the condition. The social costs of this cause of blindness are very high.

Professor Polkinghorne explained that: `These medicines are now available in the UK, Australia and the USA and New Zealand ophthalmologists are keen to treat their patients with these agents. Because of the media and the internet, patients are becoming increasingly aware of the new therapies. But the cost and resource implications of introducing these new therapies will be significant and we cannot expect New Zealanders to have to pay for the treatment out of their own pockets. AMD is predominantly a disease of patients aged over 65 years – and these drugs may need to be given for several years. Due to our ageing population, the cost of treating this condition is very likely to mushroom in the next decades.’

Professor Paul Mitchell (National Research Advisor) – MBBS, MD, PhD, FRANZCO, FROphth, FAFPHM

Professor Paul Mitchell is a leading retinal ophthalmologist and international speaker on Macular Degeneration. Professor Mitchell is Head of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Sydney, Director of the Eye Centre at Westmead Hospital and a world expert in the epidemiology of Macular Degeneration. He conducted the world renowned Blue Mountains Eye Studies which provided unique information about the incidence of the disease in an Australian population, including proving the link between smoking and Macular Degeneration. Professor Mitchell is the MD Foundation's National Research Advisor and provides information on relevant statistics relating to Macular Degeneration.

About Lucentis®
Lucentis® (ranibizumab) has been shown in clinical trials to maintain and improve vision and vision-related quality of life in people suffering from neovascular, or “wet,” age-related macular degeneration (AMD). A therapeutic antibody fragment designed specifically for treating conditions of the eye, Lucentis blocks all known biologically active forms of vascular endothelial cell growth factor A (VEGF-A), the molecule believed to be a major underlying cause of wet AMD. Lucentis was developed by Genentech and Novartis Pharma AG. Genentech has the commercial rights to Lucentis in the United States, while Novartis Pharma AG has exclusive rights in the rest of the world.

About The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO)
RANZCO is the professional body representing more than 850 ophthalmologists (medical eye specialists) in Australia and New Zealand. The College provides a range of services to improve the standard of eye care in Australia and New Zealand, and promotes scientific research and the training and education of ophthalmologists.


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