With the development of a clear strategy, hepatitis C can be eliminated in Australia within the next 15 years, according to Burnet’s Head of Population Health, Professor Margaret Hellard.
Hepatitis C affects 130-150 million people globally and accounts for the deaths of an estimated 350-500,000 people each year.
Of the more than 230,000 Australians living with chronic hepatitis C infection, the vast majority of whom have a history of injecting drug use, only one-to-two percent are treated annually.
In a recent presentation to a Victorian Department of Health Workshop on hepatitis C, Professor Hellard outlined an eight-point plan to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health problem in Australia by 2030.
The strategy includes making testing easily accessible to people at risk; frequent and regular testing for people who inject drugs; building capacity and training for health service staff; and increasing treatment.
“People with Stage 3 and 4 liver disease should be treated so they do not develop liver cirrhosis, cancer and liver failure,” said Professor Hellard.
“This means ongoing support for high quality tertiary care programs where people with significant liver disease require treatment and for some ongoing management.”
Professor Hellard said Burnet studies have shown that treating people who inject drugs in community-based nurse-led programs can stop the transmission of hepatitis C.
She said no one should be put off by the cost of new treatments, which are likely to be made available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme later this year.
“The price is already falling globally and these drugs will become affordable,” Professor Hellard said.
“The current assumed cost of drugs is not an excuse to not implement a sustained program of care and treatment.”
Professor Hellard’s strategy also caters for quality surveillance systems; an expansion of opioid substitution therapy and needle and syringe programs; better support for community-based services; an emphasis on peer-based education; and promotion of an evidence-based approach to treatment.
“There is stigma and discrimination against people infected with hepatitis C and the populations who are at risk of hepatitis C,” Professor Hellard said.
“Similar to what was done for HIV we need a public health promotion program to say we have had enough of that!
“We have the privilege and opportunity at this key moment in time to stop hepatitis C deaths, to stop hepatitis C transmission, to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health problem in Victoria by 2030.
“Our challenge is to develop, implement and maintain a clear, coherent and evidence-based strategy to ensure we are successful in hepatitis C elimination.”