15 Mar 2014

New drug could beat Hepatitis C

10:39 pm on 15 March 2014

Public health experts across the Tasman say effective new drugs to treat hepatitis C should be subsidised in Australia to avert a looming strain on the nation's health system.

Australians who contracted hepatitis C decades ago are only now starting to develop terminal liver disease at an alarming rate.

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Photo: AFP

More than half of Australia's 250,000 hepatitis C sufferers are baby boomers who contracted the virus back in the 1960s and 1970s, when experimental drug taking was rampant.

Most of these patients have, until now, remained in good health, but after 30 or more years living with the virus, the number getting liver cancer or waiting for liver transplants is now dramatically on the rise - leaping from 10 per cent to 40 per cent in the past five years.

It is a trend which could put pressure on healthcare resources.

Until recently, treatments have had such a low success rates and brutal side effects, even doctors have advised patients to wait for a better treatment to come along, hopefully before liver failure claims them first.

Public health researcher Jack Wallace is one of those with hepatitis C who has not treated the disease, hoping they are not among the one in three who will die of liver failure.

"I've been putting off treatment for the last 20 years because the current treatments, the side effects of them are too hard for me to contemplate actually doing treatment," he said.

However, one of Australia's leading hepatologists, Professor Geoff McCaughan, says a new "revolutionary" treatment is being rolled out in the United States and Europe.

"We are talking about 95 per cent cure rates with one or two tablets a day, essentially without any side effect," he said.

The drugs have arrived at a time when the first generation of hepatitis C sufferers in Australia - the baby boomers - are starting to succumb to liver failure.

"Liver cancer associated with hepatitis C is the most rapidly growing cancer in the Western world," Professor McCaughan said.

"So 40 to 50 per cent of liver cancer is hepatitis C; 40 to 50 per cent of adults requiring liver transplant, hepatitis C."

"The problem at the moment is the cost of these drugs in Europe and the United States is extraordinarily high - you know, $90,000 to $100,000 or even more."