Government happy with status quo for hepatitis as WHO elimination targets start to slip and cancer rates increase

Media Release: 4 April 2019

Hepatitis Australia welcomes the Government’s broad commitment to Australia’s National Strategies addressing blood borne virus (BBVs) and in particular supports its increased focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and the broader Indigenous health funding announced in the Federal Budget. 

However, Hepatitis Australia notes the lack of additional support to reverse the sharp decline in people being cured of hepatitis C and the apparent lack of recognition of liver cancer and deaths related to hepatitis B. 

Hepatitis Australia CEO, Helen Tyrrell says, “Combined there were almost 2,000 deaths in Australia caused by hepatitis B and hepatitis C in 2016 and 2017. The treatment that could have averted a large proportion of these deaths simply did not reach people in time. Experts are now saying the nationally agreed global mortality reduction targets probably won’t be reached by 2030.” 

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are the leading causes of liver cancer in Australia. Liver cancer is one of the 10 most commonly diagnosed cancers in men and has one of the lowest five-year survival rates, resulting in it being one of the 10 most common causes of death from cancer for both men and women in Australia. [I]

“Liver cancers from chronic hepatitis B and C are preventable. Action must be taken to support the 416,091 [ii] people currently living with hepatitis B and hepatitis C to facilitate awareness and engagement in care before serious liver disease develops” said Ms Tyrrell.

With the Government investing $485m in changes to the Chronic Disease Plan on the Medical Benefits Scheme, Hepatitis Australia reiterates its call for the Government to include the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis B and hepatitis C as key health priorities under these plans. We ask that $10m p.a. is targeted towards the identification and treatment of hepatitis B and C in primary care over the next three years.

The current levels of engagement among General Practitioners (GPs) to treat 
hepatitis B and cure hepatitis C is grossly inadequate. Only 10% of GPs are prescribing the curative treatments for hepatitis C, despite 90% of GPs having 2-10 patients in their practice that could be diagnosed and cured of this disease. 

Additionally, people living with hepatitis B and hepatitis C continue to face high levels of stigma and often have low levels of awareness of gold-standard care creating barriers to treatment. 

“While we are grateful for the $1million provided to Hepatitis Australia last year to boost community awareness of the hepatitis C cures, we reiterate that the funding allocation for this work needs to be commensurate with the scale of the problem if we are going to reduce liver cancer and avoidable deaths. We therefore request $10m targeted towards community awareness and engagement in care to support the implementation plans for the National Hepatitis B and National Hepatitis C Strategies over the next three years.”

“Appropriate treatment relies on timely diagnosis. Diagnosis requires access to testing.” 

Australia’s health system falls behind many others when it comes the use of point of care testing (PoCT). The delays in registration for these testing products is of great concern and Hepatitis Australia requests an urgent working group be formed of clinicians, consumers, product manufacturers and the Therapeutic Goods Administration to address barriers to registration before subsidisation can occur. Following subsidisation PoCT should be rapidly rolled out to support early diagnosis and timely treatment to prevent the ongoing and avoidable poor health outcomes and support the achievement of elimination goals. 

“Australia has committed to the WHO targets of elimination of hepatitis B and hepatitis C by 2030.  Without adequate support in the primary care setting and community education, these targets are not achievable. For 18 months now government has watched treatment rates for HCV decline. The time to act is now before Australia takes too many steps back along the road to success.”

Hepatitis Australia will be writing to all parties in the forthcoming election to seek their support to stop the avoidable deaths and commit to financial support at the scale required to substantially improve access and treatment for people with hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

[i]Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2019. Cancer in Australia: In brief 2019. Cancer series no. 122. Cat no. CAN 126. Canberra: AIHW. 

[ii]Kirby Institute. HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia: Annual surveillance report 2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney; 2018