Today is World Hepatitis Day with a theme of eliminating hepatitis.
In May 2016 New Zealand was one of 194 countries that adopted the World Health Organization’s Global Hepatitis Strategy, which set the goal of eliminating viral hepatitis by 2030. This is achievable in New Zealand.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection affecting over 50,000 New Zealanders, although it’s estimated only half are currently diagnosed. Left untreated, around 25% will develop cirrhosis and, without successful treatment, up to 10% of those with cirrhosis will progress to life-threatening liver cancer or liver failure.
In July 2016 Pharmac started funding direct-acting antiviral therapies with cure rates of over 90% for hepatitis C. To date, over 2,000 people have been funded for the new treatments.
From October 2016 all prescribers, including general practitioners, were able to prescribe the new treatments – this is a fundamental change in the treatment of hepatitis C in primary care. As more people have been accessing the new funded treatments from their general practitioner, 34% of prescribing is now happening in primary care.
Professor Ed Gane, Chair of the Ministry’s Hepatitis C Implementation Advisory Group says great progress is being made in curing New Zealanders living with hepatitis C. ‘But there is more work to be done to increase primary care prescribing and reaching those people that haven’t been diagnosed. Hepatitis C can be eliminated from New Zealand within the next 20 years but to achieve this, we must increase testing and treatment in primary care.’
Professor Ed Gane was awarded New Zealand Innovator of the Year in 2017 in recognition of his work towards the development of a cure for hepatitis C.
The public health work is being led by district health boards with support from the Ministry of Health in partnership with Pharmac. Corrections, Work and Income and Needle Exchange Services are also working to improve treatment access and uptake. For more information on work in progress to improve hepatitis C services in New Zealand including training and education resources, visit Hepatitis C.
Dr Bryan Betty, Deputy Medical Director from Pharmac, says curing hepatitis C has flow-on effects like preventing liver cancer, premature death, or the need for liver transplants.
‘If we can make the most of these Pharmac-funded treatments, we can achieve real and long-term benefits for our community.’
Meanwhile, progress continues towards eliminating hepatitis B, with its vaccine part of the childhood immunisation programme since 1987.
It’s estimated that around 100,000 New Zealanders are currently living with the virus, with many undiagnosed as symptoms can take decades to appear. Treatment is available and helps prevent further damage and also reverses damage from liver scarring.