Community voice at launch of National Strategies

The following speech was given by Andrew Little, a person affected by hepatitis C, at the launch of the new National Strategies on the 7th July 2014.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present and to any Aboriginal people present here today.

I would like to start by thanking Minister Dutton for steering these Strategies through the Council of Australian Governments processes so that they could be released as a suite today. Hepatitis Australia has been working with the government to develop these Strategies for some time and we welcome their endorsement by the Federal, State and Territory Health Ministers ahead of World Hepatitis Day on 28 July. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has established National Strategies for viral hepatitis, we should be proud of this achievement and Hepatitis Australia would like to thank everyone who has worked hard over the last year to bring this about.

However, the work doesn’t stop here. The National Strategies provide the framework for action. It is now up to the Federal, State and Territory governments to make appropriate investments which better match the size and trends of the viral hepatitis epidemics and work in partnership with the sector to implement the Strategies.

Nearly half a million Australians are living with chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C and almost one thousand are dying each year. Deaths from hepatitis B and hepatitis C are rising each year and could largely be prevented if people are diagnosed early and linked to appropriate clinical care and support. Clearly, addressing the death toll associated with viral hepatitis has to be a priority area for investment and coordinated action.

The Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C National Strategies recognise the need to improve early diagnosis and treatment. At the moment nearly half of those estimated to be living with hepatitis B in Australia are not diagnosed and less than 5% are receiving treatment. With respect to hepatitis C only 1% of the people with chronic infection received treatment in 2012 despite treatment offering a cure for many. I think you will all agree these are appalling figures. Effectively linking people to viral hepatitis care must therefore be a central focus for immediate investment and action.

As the saying goes prevention is better than cure. In Australia an additional 7,000 people are being diagnosed with hepatitis B each year and another 8,000 with hepatitis C. We therefore also need an increased focus on ensuring the community are aware of all the risks of infection and that governments provide improved access to hepatitis B vaccinations and needle and syringe programs for vulnerable populations, as these are the cornerstones of the prevention effort for hepatitis B and hepatitis C respectively.

Despite having National Strategies in place for some years, the burden of disease stemming from hepatitis B and hepatitis C has continued to grow year on year.

We hope that the release of these National Strategies today, which for the first time include numeric targets, will be the catalyst for concerted investment and action which will over the course of the next three years enable to epidemics to start to shrink rather than continue to grow. In that regard we are encouraged by the TGA’s approval of sofosbuvir, heralding a new era in hepatitis C treatment – and hope to see that matched by a funding commitment to provide equal treatment for 230,000 Australians living with hepatitis C.

My message, as someone affected by hepatitis C, is that everyone has a role to play in achieving this goal. We want all Australians and particularly all of you as opinion leaders, to support and encourage open conversations about viral hepatitis and actively challenge the stigma and discrimination that stops people accessing prevention, care and support. Until awareness of viral hepatitis is raised, attitudes are changed and stigma and discrimination is eliminated we will continue to fight an uphill battle to achieve the targets within these strategies.

Thank you.