Watchdog eases rules on use of Alzheimer treatments

Campaigners have welcomed a decision by the health watchdog to allow patients' access to previously denied Alzheimer's drugs.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) caused controversy in 2006 and 2007 when it ruled the key medicines would only be available to those in moderate stages of the disease.

Supporters argued it was cruel and unethical to force patients with early-stage Alzheimer's to wait until they became worse before they could get the drugs.

In its latest draft guidance, Nice said the medicines should now be made available to people with mild disease – potentially benefiting thousands of sufferers.

Nice confirmed it was extending previous recommendations for the use of three drugs – Donepezil (Aricept, Eisai/Pfizer), galantamine (Reminyl, Shire) and rivastigmine (Exelon, Novartis) – to include mild, as well as moderate Alzheimer's disease.

It also recommended the use of memantine (Ebixa, Lundbeck) for severe disease and for some patients with moderate disease.

Nice's chief executive, Sir Andrew Dillon said: "Since 2007 clinical trials have continued to show the positive effects of these drugs and, in the case of memantine, have reduced the uncertainty about its clinical effectiveness. In addition, we now have more information about the costs of living with and treating this very distressing disease, as it progresses through its mild, moderate and severe stages."

The draft guidance is now with consultees, who have the opportunity to appeal against the proposed recommendations. Final guidance is expected to be published in March,

The drugs, which cost on average about 2.80 a day, do not offer a cure for Alzheimer's disease but they have been shown to improve the ability to pay attention and plan and well as improve mood, alertness and restore confidence, in some cases for at least six months.

Evidence is increasing that the drugs can also alleviate anxiety, depression and apathy.

Andrew Chidgey, head of policy and public affairs at Alzheimer's Society, said: "This is a victory for people with Alzheimer's and their carers, many of whom have been campaigning for this day for years. These drugs don't work for everyone, but for some people they can radically improve their quality of life.

"We now need more people to be diagnosed early and for them to receive the treatment, support and advice that they desperately need."