New treatments are changing the future of hepatitis and liver cancer, but there’s a call for people across Australia to take action.
Released on 29 September, a new report from the UNSW’s Kirby Institute says Australia could cure more people of hepatitis C in 2016 than the previous 20 years.
Since March this year an estimated 26,360 Australians have received treatment, marking the most rapid uptake of treatment for hepatitis C anywhere in the world.
Speaking before World Hepatitis Day in July, Stuart Loveday, CEO of Hepatitis NSW, said with this treatment Australia has reached a turning point in hepatitis C treatment.
“We have been waiting for this for so long.”
“This is cancer prevention,” says Stuart.
The introduction means treatments with a 90 per cent success rate are now available to everybody.
Hepatitis is the largest cause of liver cancer in NSW, a cancer that’s one of the fastest growing (by percentage) across Australia.
Professor David Currow, Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of the Cancer Institute NSW, says that growth is largely related to the prevalence of hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Primary liver cancer is increasing in Australia, with almost 1,400 people diagnosed each year. It has recently become one of the top ten causes of cancer death in Australia, a key focus in the 2016-released NSW Cancer Plan.
Speaking about Australia’s new hepatitis C treatments, he’s equally positive about the impact it will have.
“This is extraordinary, generational change,” Professor Currow says.
What is hepatitis?
The two main hepatitis viruses, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are estimated to affect almost 450,000 people in Australia – about two in every 100 individuals.
The World Health Organisation describes hepatitis as an inflammation of the liver – the condition can be self-limiting or can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis or liver cancer.
In Australia, hepatitis C is largely concentrated in Caucasian populations – although it also disproportionately affects Aboriginal people and some multicultural communities – and is spread through blood to blood contact and strongly associated with intravenous drug use.
Hepatitis B is most often spread from mother to infant, and is primarily present in multicultural and Aboriginal communities.
Stuart Loveday explains these distinct connections to specific populations mean the disease is easily stigmatised, and barriers to treatment can be quickly built.
What is the future of hepatitis in NSW?
Currently there are an estimated 82,000 people in NSW with hepatitis C and 78,000 with hepatitis B.
The hepatitis B vaccination program has been in place in Australia since 1988.
It is today free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and recommended for all babies and adolescents, as well as people at high risk of the disease.
Professor Currow says despite the exciting advancements in hepatitis C treatment, hepatitis B is still a problem, and he’s urging people to see their GP and get vaccinated.
Additionally, while prevention steps are crucial, it's also important to monitor your general health if you think you might be at risk.
“Form a really good relationship with your GP and monitor how your liver is going, and how your hepatitis is going,” Professor Currow says.
“If you are a person from a country where hepatitis B is common, have a hepatitis B test. See a doctor who is knowledgeable about hepatitis B.”
Stuart Loveday explains how there are currently over 1,000 people dying from hepatitis nationally every year – the same number that were dying from HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Australia.
The message this World Hepatitis Day is clear.
“Get tested, get into management, under-go treatment,” he says.
“It’s vital to use World Hepatitis Day as a rallying cry, and to realise hepatitis is not a death sentence.”
He says it’s about empowering people to know their health and make the most of treatments that are now available.
Stuart says stigma and discrimination prevent too many people from getting the health care available.
“For people with hepatitis C we are urging them to contact their GP and have a liver health test,” he says.
“We want all people with hepatitis C to undergo treatment.”
- Visit Hepatitis NSW to find out more about the new hepatitis C treatments available in Australia.
- Get more information on liver cancer in NSW, and why it’s a focus area for the NSW Cancer Plan.