Pharmac, the Government’s medicines subsidy agency has decided against funding Zytiga, a life-prolonging drug for men who are dying from prostate cancer.
Zytiga is prescribed with Prednisone to men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, advanced cancer that’s spread to other parts of the body and is resistant to hormone therapy.
But it costs $5000 a month to use and Pharmac estimates up to 1000 men a year fall within this group.
64-year old Rea Wikaira is one of them. He says Zytiga needs to be subsidised.
“I’d hate to think how many men with the same condition as me can’t afford Zytiga.”
Mr Wikaira was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2009. He’s been on hormone treatment since and recently had six months of chemotherapy.
He now has metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. It’s spread to his glands, abdomen and neck. Mr Wikaira was prescribed Zytiga in February, as his last hope.
“What this has enabled me to do is carry on working. It has given me a quality of life.”
Mr Wikaira is a Board Member for Te Wananga o Aotearoa and the Health Promotion Agency. For the last six weeks, he’s been driving water trucks part-time to help pay for the cancer drug.
In August last year, Pharmac’s Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC) recommended Zytiga should be funded, but with a low priority.
It was then reconsidered by both PTAC and the Cancer Treatments Subcommittee in September and then again in February this year.
Pharmac’s Sarah Fitt, Director Operations says: “Once Pharmac has a recommendation from PTAC, we compare all the medicines funding applications that are options for investment and prioritise them, using the decision criteria and taking into account the amount of funding available.
“The minutes of these later meetings are not published yet, however we can advise that the Committee’s low priority recommendation for funding did not change.”
Pharmac will not be funding Zytiga in the foreseeable future.
But a spokesperson for Janssen (New Zealand), the company that produces Zytiga, says it will continue to push Pharmac to change the funding priority for the drug.
“New Zealand men and kaumatua will now have to continue to wait for a decision about funding of Zytiga for the foreseeable future unless Pharmac changes the funding priority given to Zytiga.
“There is currently very few options for men at this advanced stage of disease and the most common current options include at best supportive care or chemotherapy infusions.”
The Ministry of Health estimates 3000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and more than 600 die from it every year, similar to breast cancer in women.
Pharmac’s Ms Fitt says Zytiga is not a cure. “So even with treatment it is likely that the relative number of deaths would not change. The treatment aims to extend life.”
For Mr Wikaira the drug’s given him a chance to live longer than his specialists gave him.
A scan two weeks ago revealed Wikaira’s cancer had reduced in size from 28mm to 19mm in his prostate. He had bigger reductions in his abdomen and neck.
Wikaira’s Zytiga dosage has now been decreased and he only has to pay $5000 every three months for the cancer drug.
He is disappointed with Pharmac’s decision.
He understands the funding agency has limited funds but believes men aren’t being given the same priority as women with breast or cervical cancer.
“There’s been a lot of investment in women’s health and rightly so, but there’s nothing for men at all.”
He says many men with prostate cancer can keep working and contribute to society and Zytiga is one tool to help make that happen. But at the moment it’s too expensive for most men with prostate cancer to buy.
“It doesn’t save lives but gives an opportunity to extend life rather than let it go.”