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15 Aug 2016

Australia could become the first country in the world to be hepatitis C-free if a recent stunning upsurge in the number of people being treated for the potentially fatal disease is sustained.

The number of people being treated for the illness has increased almost ten-fold since a new generation of drugs were added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme earlier this year, according to figures compiled by the Kirby Institute, fuelling hopes hepatitis C might be eradicated within a decade.

“Australia is leading the world in the treatment of hepatitis C, with the most rapid uptake of new treatments seen anywhere in the world, thanks to the unique approach Australia has taken in making these medicines available without restriction,” Kirby Institute Program Head Professor Greg Dore said.

Since March, patients with hepatitis C have been able to get subsidised access to advanced antiviral drugs including Sovaldi, Ibavyr, Harvoni and Daklinza through the PBS following the Government’s decision to commit $1 billion to their listing. Sovaldi, in particular, is hugely expensive. A 12-week course of treatment costs around $110,000.

It is estimated that around 233,000 Australians are infected with hepatitis C, and the number receiving treatment has soared from less than 3000 to 22,470 in the past five months.

Health Minster Sussan Ley said the huge uptake showed the Government’s commitment to eradicate the disease within a generation was paying off.

The Minister said that around 5000 had already completed their course of treatment, and the early indications were that they were free of the disease.

“The Turnbull Government made the world-first decision to invest over $1 billion subsidising these cures for hepatitis C on the PBS, no matter the severity of a person’s condition or how they contracted it,” Ms Ley said. “And while it’s still early days, it’s already starting to pay off, with better than expected take-up rates and some people even now hep C-free, just a few months after starting treatment.”

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus most commonly transmitted through the sharing of dirty needles and drug injecting equipment. There is no vaccine. It is estimated that 170 million people worldwide are chronically infected with the disease, which kills around 500,000 a year as a result of hep C-related liver damage.

Many with the disease have been reluctant to seek treatment because of the serious side effects of older drugs.

But Hepatitis Australia Chief Executive Helen Tyrrell urged those with the illness to talk to their doctor about the new drugs available, which had far fewer side effects.

Ms Tyrrell lauded the role played by family doctors in getting so many people onto treatment.

“This is a huge achievement and testament to the critical role of GPs, who can prescribe hepatitis C medicines for the first time – and the vision of the Australian Government in making these therapies available without restriction,” she said, adding that because the amount the Government would pay for the medicines was capped, “the more people treated over the next five years the better”.

Professor Dore urged those with the disease to immediately seek treatment.

“Treatment for hepatitis C is vital to prevent liver damage which can lead to liver cancer, liver cirrhosis and liver failure – and treatment is now better and easier than ever,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

 


Published: 15 Aug 2016