Published: 17/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5982 Page 10

October was breast cancer awareness month, and the health secretary’s special interest in Herceptin kept it in the headlines.

But as winter approaches, the debate about funding for the drug simply will not go away.

Last week North Stoke primary care trust decided to prescribe the drug for a patient in the early stages of the disease, the day after an intervention from Patricia Hewitt.

That came two weeks after her instruction that PCTs should not refuse to fund Herceptin solely on cost grounds, having earlier said all women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer would be tested to see if they might benefit. As soon as the drug was licensed, its use would be fast-tracked.

Much of the media has applauded Ms Hewitt’s stance, but a piece in last Thursday’s Times sees it differently. Under the headline ‘Is this unqualified health secretary really helping cancer patients?’, Mick Hume claims the Department of Health has performed a ‘self-serving stunt’ which plays politics with patients’ health.

He points to an article in last week’s Lancet, which flags up the risks of the drug, and concludes that there is insufficient evidence to make reliable judgements about its value.

The Lancet’s editorial urges drug agencies and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to make their decisions carefully after considering all evidence.

It warns: ‘They must be free from political, special interest, or media influence.’ Mr Hume goes further, drawing attention to the way that ‘breast cancer sufferers - with their celebrity and parliamentary champions’ - do better than those with diseases like lung cancer.

And he says progress for patients is ‘unlikely to be helped by drug company hype or moral blackmail from campaigners, let alone the unhealthy notion that Nanny Hewitt knows best’.