By Sarah Boseley
A daily pill to keep baldness at bay will only be available to those who can pay for a private prescription, it became clear yesterday, after the government and the manufacturers agreed that hair loss was not a health priority.
Some of those affected felt differently. Elizabeth Stele, director of the hairloss charity Hairline International, said that the new drug, Propecia, should be available on the NHS. "Baldness can destroy marriages, wreck careers and ruin lives," she said.
But Merck, Sharp and Dohme, the manufacturer, does not want to have Propecia rejected from the health service in the way the health secretary dismissed Relenza, the anti-flu drug. Yesterday MSD said it did not think the NHS should pay for Propecia, which is not funded by the state in any of the 38 countries where it is licensed. Had it not made that acknowledgement, it is possible the drug would have been referred to the national institute for clinical excellence, which assessed Relenza and advised the health secretary not to allow it to be prescribed on the NHS.
MSD hopes instead that the government can be persuaded to allow GPs to write private prescriptions for the drug-which it claimed kept baldness at bay but could not alleviate hair loss through chemotherapy or alopecia in children. For this to happen, Propecia would have to be listed on schedule 10 of the NHS (general medical services) regulations 1992, which contains a hotchpotch of medicines and potions from suntan oil to headache tablets, many of which would be cheaper over the counter. It also contains drugs like Librium and Valium no longer deemed appropriate for most patients because of the risk of dependency.
The department of health welcomed what it called the "responsible approach" of MSD yesterday. It said: "Natural hair loss is not a health need, and cannot compare with our priorities of cancer, heart disease and mental health. The department will now be taking action so that this product is not available on the NHS."
The question of whether GPs will be allowed to write private prescriptions will take longer. GPs may not be keen on the idea, since they will not get paid for doing so. Pharmacists, on the other hand, will make a charge for dispensing a private prescription.
MSD said yesterday it expected every GP to get one to two patients a year requesting Propecia, a market of between 38,000 and 76,000.
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The present cost of a Propecia prescription is £36/mo or £432/year, compare that to a years supply ( 3 boxes ) of Proscar for £140.