Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2753

Senator CHIPP —I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Health a question about Mrs Kerry Burke, who is dying from leukemia and has been advised by her doctors that she may prolong her life by the use of the drug harringtonine. Does the Minister know about the outrageous decision of the Department of Health and the Health Minister, who refused permission to Mrs Burke to import the drug for her own personal use and under her doctor's supervision, even though she has given an undertaking that it would not be made available to anybody else? Does any politician or public servant have the right to refuse Mrs Burke or anyone else the chance to use a possibly life-saving drug , where no one else is affected? Is it not a massive denial of basic human rights for bureaucrats and pliant politicians to deny a person's right to prolong her own life?

Senator GRIMES —The situation which has been described by Senator Chipp in such emotive terms-I do not condemn him for doing so; these matters are always difficult-has arisen over the years in regard to various drugs. It is worth while putting down certain facts about the situation before too many wild claims are made about the Department of Health or the Minister for Health. There are in fact two preparations of the type mentioned by Senator Chipp which come into consideration in these circumstances. One is a pure, standardised, carefully prepared preparation called homoharringtonine which is under test by the United States National Cancer Institute. There is a second preparation, harringtonine, which was mentioned by Senator Chipp, which is produced apparently in China. It is a different analogue. At times it has been described as a mixture of the two substances. It is of unknown composition, unknown sterility and unknown purity.

As to the first preparation, the National Cancer Institute in the United States is not prepared to make some of its small supply of the drug available to doctors who treat individual patients, unless those doctors are willing to take part in proper trials and have a proper protocol. This is standard international practice. It is my understanding that Mrs Burke's doctors are not willing to do that. The Department of Health has a duty to ensure that Australian patients are not exposed to therapeutic substances of unknown composition and safety. Mrs Burke's physician has advised the Minister 'that harringtonine is not the only treatment available nor may it be the most efficient treatment available'. The physician also advised the Acting Minister for Health in similar terms.

On the advice of other consultants involved in the management of leukemia, there are already treatments available in Australia which might be used, and the Department believes it cannot endorse the use of unidentified preparations. Data from the National Cancer Institute in the United States from carefully controlled trials have shown that, despite the statements made in Melbourne, homoharringtonine is toxic to bone marrow cells as are other anti-cancer agents. It has been found to be associated with severe, unpredictable and unexplained effects on blood pressure and similar side effects. The Minister for Health has indicated to the physicians involved that the Department of Health continues to seek data from China to establish the sterility and purity of this substance. Once such data are obtained and evaluated, it may be possible to institute a trial under conditions of control demanded by international experts in this area .

Senator Peter Baume —What is to be lost for this lady, though? That is the problem, is it not?

Senator GRIMES —That always is the problem. Senator Baume will know that in the past we have had in this country, under the previous Government and other governments, situations where people wanted to import substances of dubious therapeutic worth, dubious standards of preparation, sterility and everything else, and in those circumstances they have been refused. I have asked the Minister for Health, in view of Senator Chipp's representations yesterday, to have another look at the matter. But the Department of Health has a duty to protect patients generally in this country from the importation of what may be potentially very dangerous substances. That is the decision made by the Department of Health and it has made such decisions in the past. One can imagine that if there were no such regulations, in view of the potential for the importation of all sorts of extraordinary drugs into this country, with all sorts of extraordinary and dangerous effects, judgments would have to be made. I believe that, on the evidence in this case, the right judgment has been made. I believe that the unpublished data of physicians involved in the case have cast doubt on the effectiveness of this drug when it was used in the past. Therefore, for all those reasons, the Minister for Health and the Department of Health have made a decision which the Minister for Health has confirmed.

Senator CHIPP —Mr President, I wish to ask a supplementary question. Is the Minister not aware that Mrs Burke's own doctors advise that the alternatives to which the Minister referred could in fact hasten her death and that harringtonine offers the only chance she has? Since her doctors and medical supervisors have given an unconditional guarantee that the drug, if imported, would not go to anybody else and that Mrs Burke personally has made a decision to give it a try, what possible damage could it do to anybody, other than Mrs Burke who has been given four weeks to live, if the Minister reverses the decision?

Senator GRIMES —I can only say that the statements made by the doctors concerned last night on Nationwide are contrary to the statement they made in written form to the Acting Minister for Health and the Department, in which they said that it is not the only treatment available, though it may be the most efficient treatment. All the evidence is that the effects and side effects of this substance, such as its effects on bone marrow depression, and its unpredictable effects on the circulatory system, make it no safer than alternative forms of treatment for leukemia. That happens to be the view of the experts in this area and other experts in this area in the country. Personally, I think it is most unfortunate that the doctors have gone public in this way, contrary to the written evidence which they have given on previous occasions.