1 Feb 2019

'We've finally got a treatment': Hep C drug now funded

7:23 am on 1 February 2019

From today tens of thousands of New Zealanders with hepatitis C can receive a free drug that will cure them.

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Photo: 123rf.com

Pharmac now funds the expensive drug Maviret.

Hepatitis C is a highly infectious, blood-borne virus that can cause cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or other fatal complications.

It is estimated that 50,000 New Zealanders are estimated to have it, 60 percent of whom do not know.

Auckland man Stephen Hassan was diagnosed six months ago, following intravenous drug use in the past.

"I wouldn't have thought to get tested because I don't use IV drugs anymore.

"Getting a diagnosis at a time where there was a really effective treatment becoming available, it's better than getting sick or finding out when it's caused damage to my liver."

Maviret is the first drug to be funded for all types of hepatitis C.

For Auckland liver specialist Ed Gane, it is impossible to over-state the significance of today's move.

"We've finally got a treatment which is almost 100 percent effective, very easy to use, tablets for eight or 12 weeks, and it cures more than 99 percent of people."

But he also knows the work will now begin in earnest to locate the many thousands of people that should be on Maviret as soon as possible.

"For us, if we're going to try to get the maximum benefit out of this fantastic new treatment for hepatitis C, we need to find everyone who is yet to be diagnosed, and we think that's over 20,000 people."

The risk factors for hepatitis C are IV drug use with needles, amateur tattoos, a blood transfusion before 1992, or time in prison.

Hepatitis Foundation NZ clinical director Alex Lampen-Smith said those who had travelled in a developing country in their youth should also ask their GP for a test.

"There's not really anything to say if you have X, Y, or Z symptoms get tested. I would say anyone should get tested if they've ever shared a needle even if once or twice decades ago."

She said sometimes the source would never be known but stigma should not hold anyone back from being tested.

"It's really about saying, 'Hey, look, it doesn't matter how you got it, let's get you cured, let's get you feeling better'."

Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt is reassuring those who have been waiting for months for Maviret.

"We've been working really closely with the supplier and we're very confident of the numbers that we think will take up treatment."

University of Auckland professor of medicine Ed Gane said the wider benefits of reaching all those who need Maviret are massive.

"If we treat everyone with hepatitis C within the next 20 years or so we will prevent 2500 deaths, we'll prevent almost 2000 liver cancers and we'll prevent the need for 500 liver transplants."

The Ministry of Health will roll out an action plan later this month.