17 Dec 2018

Pharmac to fund new Hep C treatment

3:02 pm on 17 December 2018

A new drug that treats Hepatitis C is expected to benefit tens of thousands of New Zealanders.

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Photo: 123rf

Up to 50,000 people are expected to benefit from the funding of a new treatment for those with hepatitis C.

That's the number of New Zealanders estimated to have the blood-borne disease that's transmitted mainly through intravenous needles or badly sterilised medical equipment.

Hepatitis C targets the liver and can be fatal. Drug-buyer Pharmac today announced that from February it'll fund the drug Maviret for those with hepatitis C regardless of the type of the virus they have.

There are six genotypes of the virus. Currently, just two drugs are funded: Viekira Pak for those with type one, and Harvoni for end stage liver disease involving all types.

Pharmac says about 3000 people have got the latter two drugs since they were funded in 2016, but an estimated 24,000 others have been without a funded treatment.

Operations director Lisa Williams said: "Maviret provides an option for those people who weren't able to access a funded treatment previously due to their genotype of hepatitis C."

Funding Maviret meant that most people with hepatitis C will now have the opportunity to access a funded treatment that had the potential to cure hepatitis C.

"In many instances, this treatment will avoid associated liver cancer, the need for a liver transplant or early death. Access to this drug is a significant advancement in treatment," Ms Williams said.

She added that using all those medicines could make a real difference to the community, but added that there was a need to reach out to people who were not yet aware they have the disease.

"While this funding decision is a major step forward, an estimated 50 percent of people who have hepatitis C have not yet been diagnosed and may not even suspect they have it," Ms Williams said.

She added that under the changes, Viekira Pak - currently funded as a first-line treatment for those with type one - will no longer be funded from February 1 next year. However, those who have already begun treatment on it will be able to complete their treatment.

An Auckland liver specialist, Ed Gane, said the announcement today was long awaited by many people who have been diagnosed with the disease but were not eligible for the funded treatments; it was "a great early Christmas present for everyone living with hepatitis C in this country".

He added: "We'll finally have a very simple treatment for everyone infected with hepatitis C except a very small number who have the very end stage [disease], what we call decompensated cirrhosis" of the liver.

Professor Gane also said hepatitis C is still a huge cause of mortality and morbidity - people dying from liver cancer and needing a liver transplant. "And all of these deaths, all of these transplants, can be prevented by treating people and curing them of their hepatitis C.

"This means that for almost 50,000 people we have a very short - only eight weeks of once-daily tablets, without side-effects, which will cure more than 98 percent, almost 99 percent, of people who take the tablet."

He added treatment was simple and ideally suited to be managed by GPs in the community: "So easy, no monitoring on treatment, no side-effects, and as I said 98 to 99 percent cure."

He added the challenge from February will be finding people who are yet to be diagnosed and getting them into treatment.