Stigma is proving a barrier to eradicating hepatitis C – in spite of a national effort to provide people with affordable access to new, effective treatment.
Hepatitis C is a virus that lives in the blood and is transmitted when infected blood from one person gets into someone else’s blood stream. This can happen in a variety of ways but a high risk activity is sharing or re-using other people’s needles, syringes or other drug injecting equipment.
In Tasmania, around 770 people have accessed the new medicines which have a cure rate of more than 95%. They replace the former treatment which was lengthy, had unpleasant side-effects and a cure rate of only 50%.
Nationally, there are around 200,000 Australians with chronic hepatitis C who have not yet sought treatment in spite of a Government decision to subsidise treatment.
And in Tasmania, more than 4500 people are still living with hepatitis C – which can cause liver inflammation and, over time, lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure or liver cancer.
Back in 2016, the Australian Government committed to spending $1 billion over five years for an unlimited supply of the direct-acting antivirals. But after an initial surge in the take-up rate for treatment, fewer people are now accessing these medicines. If this trend continues, it is unlikely the Government will meets the goal of eradicating hepatitis C in Australia by 2030.
Mark Hollick from Anglicare’s Hepatitis Prevention Program said hepatitis C was a slow-acting virus and it could take years for people to feel unwell. “For example, people who contracted hepatitis C in the 1970’s and 80’s may not currently have symptoms and are thinking ‘oh well, I’m going to be okay’,” he said. “They’re playing the numbers game”.
“Also, hep C still has massive stigma attached because of its connection with injecting drug use, and people can be uncomfortable about asking their GP about testing or treatment. There are people whose drug-taking days are long gone, but they are carrying hepatitis C. We encourage them not to ignore the issue and to take action to prevent serious liver damage”.
Mark said there were also Tasmanians with hepatitis C who remained unaware of the new, highly effective medicines. “That’s why Anglicare is sharing the message about the latest hep C medicines and supporting people as they complete the treatment which generally takes 12 weeks, with one tablet each day,” he said.
A key public health measure delivered by Anglicare is the Needle and Syringe Program which provides people who use drugs with access to sterile equipment. “We talk to everyone who comes into the NSP about their awareness of hepatitis C and the subsidised treatment that is now available,” said Mark.
One of those who has been cured of hepatitis C is Lisa, who is one of several people who shared their treatment story with Hepatitis Australia. “Why put up with stigma and discrimination and all that rubbish?” she said. “Just get treated, get rid of it and feel better”.
Lisa, who described herself as a baby-boomer who had lived with hepatitis C for more than 30 years, said she had more energy since being cleared of the virus. “Why would you wait until you get sicker? I just advocate for people to get out there, get in touch with their health professional, get on the treatment and get cured. It’s waiting for you – a new freedom, a new happiness and new energy levels”.