Multiple sclerosis patients are being denied life changing treatment due to critical staff shortages.

Pharmac’s decision to fund the drug Ocrelizamab in October last year was seen as a major win, but dozens of MS sufferers are being turned away for the infusions across the country due to stretched resources.

Christchurch 69-year-old Bruce Street was diagnosed with MS three years ago. “It’s a cruel disease,” he said, “it treats everybody in a different way.”

When the decision was made to fund a drug that was proven to slow the progression of MS symptoms — and could delay the need for a wheelchair by up to seven years — Street was delighted.

But that elation didn’t last very long. “They sort of dropped the bombshell, ‘the funding’s available but we have no facilities to do it — we’re understaffed’.”

Eight months on, and with his health deteriorating, Street was forced to pay thousands to get his first infusion privately in Auckland. He said: “I want to make the most of what I have got … so I’ll chase every avenue to get treatment that might slow it or stop it.”

MS New Zealand estimated Street was one of 35 Canterbury patients still waiting for funded treatment. President Neil Woodhams said: ”We certainly are aware of people out there who are compromised and extremely worried their MS will have progressed to a situation where they will no longer qualify for the treatment.”

Patients have to pass a mobility test to get the drug. Eighty-five were eligible to start treatment in the first year nationwide but staff shortages have drastically reduced that number.

Woodhams said the answer was obvious. “Te Whatu Ora and the Government need to seriously address the shortage of neurology workforce in New Zealand.”

In a statement, Te Whatu Ora said it was aware that patients diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in the Canterbury region were currently unable to access ocrelizumab.

“Specialist staff are required to administer infusions of ocrelizumab. Current resourcing within the infusions team in Canterbury is, unfortunately, impacting our ability to deliver this service.

“We acknowledge how incredibly distressing this will be for those who are affected. We want to reassure these patients that we are working hard to address this situation in a timely manner so we can provide this service as soon as possible.”

Bruce Street hoped he would soon be able to continue his treatment, fully funded in Christchurch.

“I hope that everybody can be helped with it in a very timely manner because times all we’ve got we don’t have a lot of it.”