Patients diagnosed with relapsing-remitting (RR) multiple sclerosis (MS) should be offered particular treatment options at an earlier stage, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
A new report from the charity suggests that the current 'wait and see' approach favoured by many trusts and consultants needs to go in favour of 'disease-modifying therapy' (DMTs).
However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) - the UK's drug watchdog - claims that while the 11 available DMTs can help in some cases, the benefits need to be weighed against the side effects, some of which can be life-threatening.
For example, patients with rapidly-evolving RRMS can be offered Tysabri, which is a monthly infusion administered by a hospital. While this can reduce relapses by as much as 70 per cent, it can increase the risk of patients developing the life-threatening progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy.
In response to the charity's report, NICE will now be reviewing exactly when and how some DMTs - some of which are relatively new - should be used.
MS is an incurable disease that can present differently in each patient, but can generally involve sight loss, pain, fatigue and disability. An estimated 100,000 people have the condition in the UK alone.
Patients with RRMS experience periods where the symptoms are active followed by periods when these ease or disappear. They can also experience flare-ups of symptoms, which last for less than 48 hours.
The report from the MS Society - created as a result of meetings between patients, medics, charities and researchers - suggests that disease may continue to get worse during remission, contradicting research that has come before it.
It claims that promptly treating RRMS patients with DMTs may help this.
Michelle Mitchell, a spokesperson for the charity, told the BBC: "Relapsing, remitting MS has been redefined - we now know the clock never stops with this disease and neither should our fight against it.
"In the UK, the most common treatment option for MS in its early stages is currently no treatment and this needs to change for the sake of tens of thousands of people's health."
The charity is now encouraging doctors and patients to discuss DMTs at an early stage and agree upon a type of treatment within six months of diagnosis.
Dr Paul Cooper, a brain specialist who advises NICE, said: "These drugs are potent with potentially long-term side-effects and consequences, therefore we have to balance the risks and benefits."
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