ABC Radio National: Health Report, 22 February 2016
Norman Swan interviews Helen Tyrrell, CEO of Hepatitis Australia. Listen to the interview or Read the full transcript here >>
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Norman Swan: On March 1, that's next week, drugs which can cure potentially hepatitis C become available on government subsidy on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. It's been a long time coming. Some of these drugs have been highly controversial, not because of whether they work but the price. One, Sofosbuvir, costing tens of thousands of dollars, when it doesn't cost that much to make. But nonetheless it's on the road, and the intent of people like Hepatitis Australia and the government is to abolish hepatitis C from Australia. In our Canberra studio is Helen Tyrrell who is CEO of Hepatitis Australia. Welcome to the Health Report, Helen.
Helen Tyrrell: Good evening.
Norman Swan: So what is this plan that you've got?
Helen Tyrrell: Well, the federal government, as you say, from 1 March is investing a record $1 billion over five years to make the new breakthrough hepatitis C medicines broadly available. And this is a very exciting time. There have been few occasions in history where there is an opportunity to eliminate any disease. And by making these new hepatitis C medicines broadly available, it's setting Australia on a path to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health concern within a generation.
Norman Swan: I mean, it's a big, bold step. Originally when these drugs were going to come on the market people said, well, you had to have liver damage. I should explain here, the hepatitis C, one of the reasons why you would treat people is that it can cause liver damage, liver failure and liver cancer, which can be reversed by these drugs. But it was said that you had to have liver fibrosis before you can get on the drugs, but that's not true now, it's anybody who is positive for hepatitis C.
Helen Tyrrell: Yes, we've certainly had a lot of concerns about the delays that there has been in getting these ground-breaking new hepatitis C medicines to the people that need them. But on the other hand we do recognise that the government really listened to us when we made our request to make them available to all people with hepatitis C. We can't have an elimination goal unless the drugs are available to all people. And to do that obviously the price comes into it, and the price needed to be much lower than the initial asking price of the pharmaceutical companies. And to some extent that negotiation period was the issue for us.
At the end of the day we are ecstatic that we have broad access to these medicines in Australia. It does set us apart from many other countries in the world where the medicines are only being made available for the sickest of the sick. Anyone who has hepatitis C in Australia from 1 March will be eligible for these medicines, provided they are over 18 years of age. So we have done extremely well in Australia. We certainly congratulate the Turnbull government, Minister Ley in particular, for having that foresight and leadership.