A plan to eliminate hepatitis C in New Zealand, reducing liver cancer and the need for liver transplants, has been released today by Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall.
“Around 45,000 New Zealanders have hepatitis C, but only around half know they have it,” says Verrall.
“Symptoms often don’t appear until much of the damage has been done. Without treatment, most people will develop progressive liver damage. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in New Zealand, and the second leading cause of liver cancer - behind hepatitis B.”
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, which can be transmitted through a number of ways, including when injecting drugs; receiving medical treatment in a high-risk region; and tattooing or body piercing with equipment that has not been sterilised.
“At the same time, many of those with hepatitis C are from our most marginalised communities, and face significant barriers to getting tested and treated - including stigma around the virus.
“But hepatitis C is preventable, and curable,” says Verrall.
The National Hepatitis C Action Plan was unveiled at a mobile, pop-up testing clinic in Hamilton, to mark World Hepatitis Day. It’s New Zealand’s response to the World Health Organization’s global hepatitis strategy, and sets out how Aotearoa will eliminate hepatitis C as a major public health threat by 2030.
WHO defines elimination as reducing the number of new cases of chronic hepatitis C by 90 percent, and reducing the number of hepatitis C-related deaths by 65 per cent - from a 2015 baseline.
Since February 2019, around 4,500 New Zealanders with hepatitis C have been treated with Maviret, a new direct-acting antiviral treatment funded by PHARMAC. Maviret is simple to administer, has fewer side effects than previous treatments, and can potentially cure 98 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C.
“Maviret has been a real game-changer, but funding drugs alone won’t achieve elimination. We need to make sure we find everyone who is at risk or has hepatitis C, offer them a test and to treat them,” says Verrall.
Work has already begun under the Action Plan, with a focus on key initiatives including developing a national awareness campaign; upscaling the distribution of free injecting equipment to people who inject drugs, to focus on hepatitis C prevention and reducing new infections; increasing access to testing through more nurse-led clinics and point of care testing delivered in the community, and through mobile clinics; increasing uptake of testing and treatment; and developing a surveillance system and virtual registry that will connect diagnosed cases with the treatment they need.
“The Action Plan is the culmination of a major collaborative effort by a group of experts from across the health system. Crucially, this has included NGOs, frontline workers and community representatives with valuable insights into how best to reach those living with hepatitis C,” says Verrall.
The Ministry of Health has allocated $2.2 million towards the funding of initiation of activities under the Action Plan. This is in addition to around $7 million per year in ongoing funding for the hepatitis C assessment and treatment services delivered in DHB regions, and the Needle Exchange Programme.
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