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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

Alarming trend prompts action: 30% increase in Aussies living with multiple sclerosis (MS)

Health Industry Hub | February 20, 2023 |

The number of Australians living with multiple sclerosis (MS) is increasing at a significant and accelerating rate.

The latest data showed that 33,335 Australians were living with MS in 2021, an increase of 30% (7,728) over the four years since the previous update in 2017 (25,607).

The latest MS figures were published in the interim report, Health Economic Impact of Multiple Sclerosis in Australia in 2021, commissioned by MS Australia and prepared by the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.

Principal Research Fellow at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research and Clinical Neurologist at the Royal Hobart Hospital and one of the report authors, Professor Bruce Taylor, said that while the rise in prevalence is a concern, the results were not unexpected.

“Increasing MS numbers are not what any of us want to see, however, the data is consistent with what we have been witnessing both domestically and internationally. Many lifestyle and behavioural risk factors contribute to a person developing MS, including obesity and insufficient sunlight exposure. If we can narrow down more precisely what risk factors are driving this escalation through further research, we could significantly reduce the risk of MS in Australia and globally,” Professor Taylor said.

The Interim Report also examined the economic impact MS has on Australian society by looking at the per person costs and the total cost of illness.

In 2021, the annual per person cost of a person living with MS in Australia was $73,457, an increase of $5,075 from 2017. The annual per person costs of MS in Australia are higher than other comparable complex chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease ($53,318), Type 2 diabetes ($5,209) and long-term cancer ($17,401).

Head of the Health Economics Research Unit at Menzies and lead author of the report, Professor Andrew Palmer, said the total costs for all people with MS in Australia have increased substantially, from $1.75 billion in 2017 to $2.5 billion in 2021.

“The rising costs of MS in Australia are significant, reflecting the increasing number of people with the disease, as well as CPI increases,” Professor Palmer said.

“Due to the current climate of inflationary pressures, it is expected that MS cost estimates will continue to escalate even further from 2022 onwards.”

MS Australia CEO, Rohan Greenland, said the latest MS numbers were concerning, but believes it is clear what must be done to turn this around.

“The latest data shows an obvious urgent need for further government investment in MS research, so we can first put the brakes on this acceleration, and ultimately stop MS in its tracks,” Mr Greenland said.

Mr Greenland said people living with MS in Australia have good access to efficacious disease modifying therapies, which can be life-changing for people who are newly diagnosed but noted with prevalence on the rise more must be done.

According to the report, since 2017, the number of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) listed disease modifying therapies for MS has increased to 14 therapies, with the top 4 being Novartis’ Gilenya, Biogen’s Tecfidera and Tysabri, and Sanofi’s Aubagio.

In line with its advocacy agenda, MS Australia wrote to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) ahead of the March meeting to support the inclusion of a subcutaneous form of Biogen’s Tysabri (natalizumab) on the PBS.

Currently, Tysabri is infused intravenously (IV) over one hour once every 28 days, usually at a hospital or infusion clinic. This is not a convenient option for people with relapsing-remitting form MS (RRMS), particularly those living in rural or remote areas.

The subcutaneous option would allow patients to attend their local healthcare professional for administration. It also offers people living with MS, who are immunocompromised, a safer option at a time when they are being encouraged to minimise the risk of COVID-19 exposure within large healthcare settings.

“A recent study found that MS prevalence had increased in every world region from 2013 to 2020, with a person diagnosed with MS every five minutes. Now we are seeing that same alarming trend in Australia and must act to both better understand what is driving this increase and to support everyone in our MS community,” Mr Greenland said.

To help curtail rising MS costs, MS Australia is also calling on the federal, state and territory governments to invest in the MS Nurse workforce.

Mr Greenland said specialised nurse care is also a highly cost-effective model of MS care, reducing the need for emergency visits, hospitalisations, and other more costly health professionals such as general practitioners and neurologists.

“Access to MS Nurses provides a better quality of life for a person with MS and significantly reduces the costs to our health system. MS Australia stands ready to work with governments across Australia on measures to increase the MS Nurse workforce,” Mr Greenland said.

MS Australia President, Associate Professor Des Graham, said it will take the full might of a global collaborative effort to get ahead of the escalating rates of MS across the world.

“MS Australia has joined forces with leading international MS organisations to share knowledge, resources and expertise to ensure we are throwing everything we’ve got to put MS behind us,” Associate Professor Graham stated.

MS Australia will also commission further research into the reasons behind this sharp surge in prevalence.

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