DUBAI //Multiple sclerosis patients in the UAE will be the first in the region to benefit from a new drug that can significantly reduce symptoms of the debilitating disease and prevent disability.
For decades, only an injectable drug was available to treat multiple sclerosis, a disease affecting the brain and spinal cord and leading to muscle weakness, and problems with co-ordination.
Patients had to inject themselves with interferon, which left red marks on the skin and flu-like symptoms that would last for 24 hours.
The news in September last year that Novartis received the go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration to market Gilenya, the first pill that can help patients with relapsing multiple sclerosis, was welcome.
A 30-year-old Emirati television producer, AA, was diagnosed with the disease 11 years ago. She has been waiting for a pill to take the place of her dreaded daily injections for years.
"I couldn't stand the injection; they were so painful and I would cry about it daily. I hated needles so much," she said. "Every time I visited my doctor, I would beg him for a different solution, anything other than the injections. He told me there were new studies out there and an oral medication might become available, and I have been waiting for years."
AA is believed to be the first patient in the UAE, and possibly the Middle East, to take Gilenya. She started the drug regimen about four or five months ago.
"This medication might not be for everyone, but at least it gave me a choice," she said. "I work sometimes two days in a row, with no sleep, and I wanted to stop having so many relapses and remove the embarrassment of having to inject myself so often."
Dr Nazar al Douri, specialist neurologist at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, has already begun prescribing it to some of his patients. "We prescribe it when we feel patients have had no response to interferon, or those who do not want the injection and want to try something oral, but that is not the only difference between the two medications," he said.
The two drugs are of completely different composition, with different side effects and different ways of modifying the symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, which has no cure.
"It is a good thing to have an option, finally, and not to rely only on the injection, but we cannot yet know the future of this new drug," Dr al Douri said.
AA suffers relapses about four times a year. "My level of multiple sclerosis is neither mild nor severe; I'm somewhere in the middle, but since I've started this medication, I have not had a single episode, and never experienced the numbness in my body that I used to feel often," she said.
Dr Budoor al Shehhi, an internal medicine doctor at Tawam Hospital and active member of the UAE Multiple Sclerosis Support Group, said the more a drug could limit the symptoms for a patient and prevent the threat of disability or paralysis, the better.
He said multiple sclerosis "can be mild, causing minor symptoms such as poor vision, but in some cases it leads to serious disabilities and sufferers can lose the ability to write, speak and walk."
Although the new drug has already been made available in a few select pharmacies and hospitals in Dubai, thanks to backing from the Dubai Health Authority, it will not be announced as an officially registered medication by the Ministry of Health until next month.
The drug, so far, has had limited exposure. It will be free for Emiratis but it is not yet clear whether it will be covered by insurance for expatriates. The drug is also expensive; AA said it was upwards of Dh1,000 a pill.
"It changed my life. This is the happiest I've been since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago," AA said.