IMAGE: Professor Margaret Hellard, Head of Burnet's Centre for Population Health
Burnet Institute’s Professor Margaret Hellard has been awarded an AUD$1.2million NHMRC Partnership Project Grant to lead research aimed at significantly reducing the burden of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in Australia.
The grant will fund the Eliminate Hepatitis C (The EC) Study over five years to establish a community-based program to increase HCV treatment uptake among people who inject drugs (PWID) using nurse-led models of care in the community and prison system.
Around 230,000 Australians live with chronic HCV infection, which can lead to liver cancer and liver failure if not treated. New highly effective treatments known as direct acting antivirals (DAAs) that can cure HCV were listed on the PBS on March 1st this year.
In Australia PWID are at highest risk of becoming infected with HCV, but until recently only a small number of PWID accessed HCV treatment because of side effects associated with the old pre-DAA treatments and treatment was only accessed through hospital outpatient services, a setting that is often considered a barrier for this marginalised group.
The EC Study aims to eliminate HCV as a public health problem in Australia by reducing the transmission of the virus and hence new infections; it will do this by increasing access by PWID to highly effective DAA treatment in community settings.
“One way to increase access to HCV treatment by PWID is to provide treatment through community settings that include other services such as opioid substitution therapy, counselling, and needle and syringe programs,” Professor Hellard said.
“Our modelling suggests that treating just 58 out of 1000 PWID would reduce new HCV infections by 80 per cent and reduce HCV prevalence in PWID to less than 10 per cent.”
The new DAA treatments are highly effective with more than 90 per cent chance of cure, with minimal side effects.
“It’s not very often that we’re in this situation, that we have drugs that cure a chronic disease,” Professor Hellard, the Head of Burnet’s Centre for Population Health, said.
“We can actually cure HCV, stop people from dying of cancer or liver disease, and also stop the transmission of the virus through ‘treatment as prevention’. We have the opportunity to eliminate a disease as a public health threat.”
Twenty-one primary care sites, four correctional facilities and six tertiary hospitals will be involved in The EC Study. Eleven nurses will provide HCV testing, blood tests, perform fibroscans, collect clinical data and provide treatment to patients with support from physicians.
The study will include a health promotion campaign to increase PWID’s awareness of DAAs, and how to access treatment in community settings where they may already attend for their general health care.
The NHMRC grant partners include Burnet Institute (lead organisation), Gilead Sciences, Department of Health and Human Services Victoria, Justice Health Victoria, Harm Reduction Victoria, Hepatitis Victoria and a number of service providers throughout Victoria.
Joining Professor Hellard as chief investigators are:
- Professor Alexander Thompson (St Vincent’s Hospital)
- Dr Joseph Doyle (Burnet Institute)
- Professor Paul Dietze (Burnet Institute)
- Professor Emma McBryde (James Cook University)
- Professor William Sievert (Monash University)
- Associate Professor Mark Stoové (Burnet Institute)
- Dr Peter Higgs (Burnet Institute)
- Dr Dennis Petrie (University of Melbourne)
- Professor Peter Vickerman (University of Bristol)