Drug subsidies could eliminate hepatitis C in Australia within a decade, experts say

Source: ABC News  Author: Tom Nightingale

There is a realistic chance hepatitis C will be eliminated within a few years due to new public subsidies of powerful drugs, some of Australia's top health experts say.

Strong new drugs have been publicly subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme since March 1, leading experts to think hepatitis C could be wiped out within years.

The direct-acting anti-viral drugs are more effective and have fewer side effects than previous treatments.

"We've got excellent drugs that can cure people, " said Professor Margaret Hellard of Melbourne's Burnet Institute. "Australia has the ability to eliminate this as a public health threat over the next 10 to 15 years. "We are in a place to show real leadership globally."

More than 200,000 people in Australia have the infectious, blood-borne virus. It attacks the liver, causing its inflammation, and can lead to cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, liver cancer and in some cases death.

Despite the new drugs to help combat the disease, health experts say the stigma of having hepatitis C will still need to be overcome because it is linked with drug use.

"We are talking about a very stigmatised behaviour and that is injecting drug use," said Bill O'Loughlin from Harm Reduction Victoria. "That's a very powerful stigma."

Injecting drug users 'need help' to avoid infection

Musician Sam Sejavka has had hepatitis C for decades, and is a former injecting drug user. "The stigma does exist, it's just how you cope with it personally," he said. "There's your feral population who are out there who have no contact at all [with medical services], that's an issue."

Mr O'Loughlin said the new treatment had huge implications but drug users needed help. "We need to acknowledge openly this is about injecting drug use, and look at injecting drug users to not only access treatment but to remain free from getting infected afterwards," he said.

"So for example, making sure they have access to needle and syringe programs, counselling and information about maintaining their health, and they understand what being clear of the virus means and how to remain clear."

In Victoria, an advisory group has been set up to try to make the most of the opportunity to eliminate hepatitis C. Professor Hellard is one of its members.

"The next hurdle will be to ensure our health systems and services are set up well to ensure people can access the therapies in a timely way, how they would like to do it," she said. "That will be our challenge in the next six to 12 months."

She said avoiding judgement would be a key to overcoming stigma. "People who inject drugs are interested in treatment and are able to go on treatment," she said.

"Now that we have new drugs which are simple, easy to take, minimal side effects, people who inject drugs are really interested in treatment."