Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is considering setting up a charitable fund for Australian sufferers of a poisonous x-ray dye, but it is unknown if New Zealand victims will benefit.
Earlier this week an Australian Federal Parliament roundtable inquiry into a condition called arachnoiditis was published, recommending that GlaxoSmithKline set up a foundation to help those affected.
The condition - which inflames and fuses the nerves and membranes of the spinal cord, causing burning back, neck and leg pain - is believed in many cases to have been caused by the diagnostic dye Myodil.
Oil-based Myodil was withdrawn from use in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 following declining sales, after being marketed by GlaxoSmithKline for more than 40 years.
It was used in a procedure called a myelogram and at the time was the best way for doctors to gain a clear picture of the spinal canal before surgery.
Evidence first emerged in the 1950s linking the dye to arachnoiditis.
Several court cases followed its removal and in 1995 GlaxoSmithKline paid NZ$16.5 million to 426 British victims in an out-of-court settlement where it refused to admit liability.
An estimated 60,000 people were affected in Australia, but it is not known how many New Zealand patients' condition was linked to the dye.
GlaxoSmithKline said it was considering the inquiry's recommendations but had not made any decision about providing assistance.
One New Zealand victim of Myodil, Te Awamutu man Brian Sloan, said he was sure more people who had been affected by the dye would come forward if a fund were set up in New Zealand.
In 1984 Mr Sloan, now 69, was injected with Myodil at Dunedin Hospital to identify a pinched nerve in his neck.
He began suffering pain in his arms and legs, numbness in his hands, and other symptoms almost immediately.
He spent the next 15 years battling ACC and medical professionals, some of whom refused to acknowledge his condition was caused by the dye, before finally receiving a payout. He is now wheelchair-bound with little feeling in his legs or hands.
"We've got no idea of the numbers [of victims] involved here . . . I'm quite sure people would come forward. There's a lady here in Te Awamutu that didn't get anywhere and she's got the same thing."
Labour's health spokeswoman Maryan Street said there could be difficulties in New Zealanders' accessing an Australian fund but if it did go ahead across the Tasman then a similar fund should be set up here as well.
It was unacceptable that big pharmaceutical companies could hide behind their deep pockets and litigation when things went wrong, she said.
"There has to be some way that these companies are called to account when their products are proved faulty."
GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Lisa Maguire said though the company had the "utmost sympathy" for people suffering from arachnoiditis, it was a complex disorder that could be caused by a number of conditions such as spinal infections, surgery and trauma.
No consideration had been given at this stage regarding support for New Zealand sufferers, she said.
Giving evidence at the inquiry, Professor Michael Sage, a past president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists, told the inquiry he believed Myodil was the most common cause of arachnoiditis.
Medsafe group manager Stewart Jessamine said little information was available about Myodil use in New Zealand, but those who had arachnoiditis should already be under care and have received treatment. The Ministry of Health would look carefully at the inquiry report and monitor developments.
- The Dominion Post
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