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Ireland among the slowest EU countries for providing cancer drugs

Irish patients wait almost four months longer for new cancer drugs than the average EU wait time, a new survey has revealed.

The survey was conducted by the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, and measured how long countries take to make drugs available once they have been authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The survey involved 39 European countries, including the EU27, and figures were gathered from 2017 to 2020.

According to the survey, cancer medicines, once authorised by the EMA, take an average of 545 days to be made available in most EU countries. However, in Ireland, such medicines typically take 661 days – almost 4 months longer.

In Germany, such drugs generally only take 100 days to be made available, and in Denmark the average was 140 days.

Notably, Sweden was more than twice as fast as Ireland at making approved cancer drugs available. Ireland ranked 27th out of 35 countries reporting data on this.

Of the western European countries, the only country slower than Ireland at making innovative new medicines available to patients was Portugal. Germany in particular is over four times faster than Ireland at providing such medicines, and Denmark is over three times faster.

When it comes to medicines that treat rare diseases, Ireland takes an average of 870 days to make such drugs available to the public after their EMA authorisation. The EU average is 636, meaning Ireland takes around 8 months longer than most. Even poorer countries in central Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria are faster than Ireland.

IPHA Chief Executive Oliver O’Connor spoke of the need to improve these numbers if Ireland is to fight illnesses like cancer effectively.

“In relation to cancer, we are making great strides but to reach the best survival rates in Europe we need to be among the best for speed and availability of new cancer medicines,” he said.

“That we are coming from a historically low base should inspire us all find ways to get the latest treatments to patients quickly. Innovation without access is meaningless. We should complement our strong medicines manufacturing footprint with a high-performance access environment. In other words, we should match scale with speed.”

Many world governments have expressed concern regarding “missed” cancers due to the suspension of screening services during the Covid lockdown.

In January a leading oncologist warned that societies urgently need to focus on finding cancers that were missed while the world was preoccupied with Covid-19.

Professor Karol Sikora, who has been an oncologist for 50 years and was formerly the head of the WHO’s cancer program, laid out the stark reality on Twitter.

“If we catch cancer at an early stage, it’s roughly a 90% survival rate,” he said.

“For later stages, that drops to around 10%.

“It won’t spread overnight, but in weeks and months it will. We need to refocus public health messaging on finding the tens of thousands of ‘missing’ patients.”

Sikora believes that in Britain alone there may be as many as 50,000 undiagnosed cancer victims.

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