Media Release: 28 July 2017

Canberra organisation Hepatitis ACT has used the occasion of World Hepatitis Day (28 July) to call for urgent action to help eliminate viral hepatitis in the ACT. The theme of World Hepatitis Day this year is “ELIMINATION” and the priority focus in Australia is “TREATMENT”.

“Everything we need for the elimination of hepatitis B and hepatitis C exists already”, said Executive Officer of Hepatitis ACT John Didlick. “These are serious and potentially fatal conditions chronically affecting more than 400,000 Australians and 7,500 Canberrans.”

“We must take advantage of the opportunities that present – such as the excellent new cures for hepatitis C – but we must also pay attention to the basics. These viruses don’t prevent themselves. People don’t diagnose themselves, prescribe their own medicines, or wake up one day with the awareness and knowledge they need to build a plan”, said Mr Didlick.

He continued, “That’s why we need community organisations who can build and maintain special relationships with affected communities. And why we need our partners in drug and alcohol, sexual health, policy and public health who understand that the lives of people living with viral hepatitis matter as much as anybody else”.

The Federal Government now provides affordable access to breakthrough antiviral medicines which can cure hepatitis C in just 12 weeks with minimal side-effects. Yet the majority of affected people have not been treated and are still living with the virus.

There is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis B, but more needs to be done to ensure it is made available within communities where the risk of exposure is high. These include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Canberrans who have migrated from parts of Asia and Africa.

Antiviral treatment for chronic hepatitis B helps prevent the development of advanced liver disease including cancer. Yet only 6% of affected Canberrans are receiving these life-saving drugs.

According to John Didlick, our pathway to elimination is simple:

• There are 700 Canberrans living undiagnosed with hepatitis C and a further 1,500 living undiagnosed with hepatitis B. We need to find them and link them to care.
• We need to extend the hep C cure to everyone who needs it, and triple our hep B treatment rates.
• We can reduce transmission of hepatitis C by strengthening and implementing evidence-based prevention strategies in the community and in prison.

“If we can do those things we can be the first Australian jurisdiction to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health concern. We have much to do but we have made a good start”, he concluded.

Hepatitis ACT urges anyone diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C to talk to a doctor about a liver check-up and treatment. Anyone who may have been exposed to hepatitis B or hepatitis C should get tested.

About hepatitis B

Affecting more than 232,000 Australians, hepatitis B is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact or unprotected sex. Without appropriate management and timely vaccination for infants, a pregnant woman with chronic hepatitis B can transmit the virus to her baby.

While vaccination rates are high among people born in Australia since the year 2000, they remain low among many people born overseas. Hepatitis B is endemic in the Asia Pacific region and in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also an elevated prevalence within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The best protection against hepatitis B is to get vaccinated. For those living with hepatitis B, ongoing monitoring and treatment provides the best protection against the development of liver disease and liver cancer.

About hepatitis C

Affecting more than 200,000 Australians, hepatitis C is mainly transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Most infections result from unsafe injecting practices and can also result from unsafe tattooing or body piercing, medical procedures in foreign countries, household transmission (e.g. shared razors or toothbrushes), from mother to baby, and sexual activity in certain circumstances.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but the virus can now be treated and cured in 95% of cases. New interferon-free therapies became available in 2016 and are very effective, short duration, and without the arduous side-effects of previous medicines.

Global elimination goals

The Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis was adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2016. Its goal is the elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health concern through:
• 90% reduction in new hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections by 2030
• 65% reduction in deaths from hepatitis B and hepatitis C by 2030
• 90% hepatitis B childhood vaccination coverage by 2020
• 90% of those with hepatitis B and hepatitis C diagnosed by 2030, and
• 80% of those living with hepatitis B and hepatitis C treated by 2030.

MEDIA CONTACT: John Didlick, Executive Officer, Hepatitis ACT, 0402 545 640