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An unsubsidised alternative to a controversial thyroid drug went into pharmacies throughout the country yesterday, on the eve of a Medsafe announcement on its progress in finding a replacement medicine.
At noon today, Medsafe will report on its moves to find another drug as an alternative to Eltroxin, which is used by an estimated 70,000 people in the country who suffer from an under-active thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton said yesterday in Parliament an alternative would be available within a few weeks.
Two had been offered.
More than 830 reports of side effects from Eltroxin had been received by the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring in Dunedin since the formulation of the drug was changed last year, although the active component was not altered.
Side effects recorded have included weight gain, lethargy, visual disturbances, eye pain, memory problems, muscle weakness and painful joints.
Some patients said they had reverted to their pre-medicated condition.
Centre director Dr Michael Tatley said yesterday dealing with calls about Eltroxin was dominating the work of the centre: "I find at the end of the day I've got no place to hide".
The number of reports received was second only to those received a few years ago about an asthma inhaler.
It remained a mystery why so many people were experiencing side effects from the drug.
Testing of the new formulation organised by Medsafe was "unremarkable".
Some patients have found their symptoms disappeared when their dosage of the medication was changed, but others have been unwilling to continue with Eltroxin.
No other publicly funded alternative drug is available.
Temuka pharmacist Allan Campbell, who has been lobbying the Government to secure an alternative drug product, had been providing patients with a British-made replacement levothyroxine medicine, but could not get more of it.
He and other pharmacists approached Abbott Australasia to see if it could assist and arrangements were made to have Synthroid brought in from Canada.
Registered in North America, the drug can used under section 29 of the Medi-cines Act, allowing exemptions.
Synthroid seems likely to be one of the alternatives referred to by Mr Anderton.
An Abbott Australasia spokeswoman said from Australia yesterday that in the past week the company had placed an application with Medsafe for New Zealand registration of the drug and requested priority review of that.
It had received a letter from Medsafe saying it was under consideration.
Because the Synthroid now in NZ is unsubsidised, patients have to pay for it.
Mr Campbell said he was charging $21 for 30 100mcg tablets (a month's supply) and $20 for 30 50mcg tablets.
He suggested patients should shop around to get the best deal.
He said his pharmacy, which has attracted much attention from patients throughout the country because of his stand on the issue, had 600 prescriptions to fill, compared with his standard number of prescriptions for Eltroxin, which would be about 80 a month.