Australian Government breaks silence on Hep C Inquiry

The Australian Government tabled its response to the Silent Disease – Inquiry into hepatitis C in Australia yesterday (9 November 2016) but commits to little.  The Silent Disease Report was released by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health during June 2015 after extensive consultation with health experts, community organisations and people affected by hepatitis C.

In its response, the Government has fully agreed with just three of the ten recommendations in the report and outlines that funding has already been provided that supports action on a number of other recommendations.

Hepatitis Australia supported the recommendations of the Silent Disease report but wishes to note that much has changed since their development. This includes the introduction of publicly funded more effective treatment for hepatitis C as well as the establishment of funding agreements with a number of organisations. 

The Government has ruled out a national hepatitis C awareness campaign saying “To change the wider community’s beliefs and attitudes around hepatitis C will only result from a long-term ongoing discussion within the community as a whole. Community leaders (including political and cultural leaders) will be pivotal in engaging with the wider community on these issues.”

On 20 December 2015, Health Minister Sussan Ley announced $1b to fund the latest treatments for hepatitis C, offering a cure to many Australians.  On 28 July 2016, Minister Ley then issued the first government media release in recent history for World Hepatitis Day.  This sort of dialogue from politicians was overdue and we hope to see it continue.

The Government has agreed, in principle, that standardised data collection in prisons is valuable and will engage with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for future iterations of the Health of Australia’s Prisoners report.  However, the Government has not agreed to recommendations for a National Strategy for blood-borne viruses in Australian prisons. They have instead pushed back any action on hepatitis C in prisons to the State Governments and stated that the priority actions in the existing Hepatitis C Strategy apply equally to prisoners and other populations. Of particular note, the prevention priority actions in the current Strategy include to “increase availability, access to and use of sterile injecting equipment among people who inject drugs”. 

In its response, the Australian Government has said that it “is willing to work with states and territories on the issue (of hepatitis C in prisons) if they wish to raise it as part of the COAG Health Council process”. With the State and Territory Governments being responsible for policy and practices within correctional settings, the onus is now on these jurisdictional Governments to support a more coordinated national response to addressing blood-borne viruses in prisons.