Victory for North East patients suffering from mesothelioma has been achieved, following a decision by the region’s Cancer Network to make a licensed chemotherapy drug called Alimta available on the NHS.

This reversal of policy was in part brought about by the pressure of a public campaign on certain Primary Care Trusts, as more and more cases of this so called ‘postcode health lottery’ emerged and were publicised by leading solicitors including Thompsons.

Ian McFall, Head of Thompsons Solicitors’ specialist asbestos team in Newcastle explains: "Many of the people affected are our clients who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos. This news will come as a great relief to them and to their families."

"Our clients had been informed by NHS doctors that they would benefit from Alimta, but that the Primary Care Trusts would not pay for the treatment. At the root of this mesothelioma treatment postcode lottery was the decision taken by the Primary Care Trusts to withhold treatment until the outcome of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) evaluation of Alimta is published in October 2006. That meant that many of our clients with mesothelioma would not live to see the outcome of the NICE review. I was not prepared to accept that."

Thompsons adopted a strategy to enable clients to obtain Alimta privately by forcing the employers who had exposed them to asbestos (or their insurers) to pay the full cost of the treatment. The wrongdoer was made to foot the bill. Thompsons also prepared the groundwork to launch a Judicial Review if the Cancer Networks had not reversed their policy.

Diagnosed with Mesothelioma

One case concerns Bernard Hoyland from Redcar & Cleveland on Teesside. Mr Hoyland developed problems with his chest in December 2004 and was eventually diagnosed with the asbestos related cancer mesothelioma in March 2005.

Following his diagnosis, Mr Hoyland was informed that he had a terminal condition and was offered only palliative care. His Oncologist then informed him that a new form of treatment called Alimta (pemetrexed) was available, which appeared to be considerably better than the drugs previously used. Despite these drugs being funded in Scotland and other parts of England, Mr Hoyland’s Primary Care Trust has rejected funding the drug.

Mr Hoyland comments: "Companies like the ones I worked for knew about the dangers of asbestos for many years but continued to use it, taking shortcuts and saving money. Finally a drug has been developed that may help people with mesothelioma. I am glad that the Health Service is now willing to make it available in the North East. I hope this paves the way to benefit other people like me elsewhere in the country who are still caught up in a cancer treatment postcode lottery."

New cases of mesothelioma are increasing rapidly in the UK. It is estimated that over 1,700 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually in the UK alone. This figure is likely to rise each year and peak at 2,500 patients in 2015 due to the delay between exposure to asbestos and onset of the disease.

Mr Hoyland was exposed to asbestos during the course of his employment with ICI and William Press from 1958-1980, where he was employed as a fitter by both companies and was required to remove asbestos lagging from pipework. He worked alongside contractors while dismantling pipework and machinery. In the early years, there were no warnings about the dangers of working with asbestos and no respiratory protection was offered by his employers.