Multiple sclerosis is a terrible, disabling disease, and medicine is trying to combat it with some very powerful drugs. The favoured treatment, especially when the MS goes into remission, is to use the antiviral drug interferon.
Interferon has been tested on MS patients for about 10 years, a therapy that has increased following some early, hopeful studies. Not that this is a unique approach. Interferon has become the great hope in treating a range of chronic diseases, including cancer.
But does it really work, and what does the drug do to the quality of life of the sufferer? A meta-review of seven trials suggests that the early optimistic soundings were premature. Worse, the side effects from the treatment were common and, in some cases, made the patient seriously ill.
Half of all patients given interferon suffered 'flu-like symptoms, while one-third had fever or myalgia. Nearly half had headaches or reported hair loss, and 20 per cent had serious psychiatric disorders.
And to add insult to the injury, the treatment was ineffective, especially after the first year.
(Source: The Lancet, 2003; 361: 545-52).