Relief as govt-funded hep C drugs become available

Hazel Heal
Hazel Heal
The "modern lepers" of the health system have come in from exile, hepatitis C campaigner Hazel Heal says, after new drugs to treat the disease became available today.

The drug Maviret is now funded by government drug-buying agency Pharmac, ending a period where patients either had to wait for treatment or find more than $2000 to afford "buyers' club" generic drugs.

"People have been waiting for this for such a long time - I know tears were shed at the time of the announcement in December and there will be tears shed today," Ms Heal said.

"It will be a complete life changer for most."

Funding the drugs meant New Zealand had taken a giant step towards joining other World Health Organisation countries in trying to eliminate the disease by 2030, Ms Heal said.

"We weren't even tracking until now - we have much more to do, but the most important step is access to medication."

Destigmatisation of the disease - a viral infection which attacks the liver - was the next hurdle to overcome, Ms Heal said.

"We are the modern lepers - we are stigmatised everywhere in the world, across all of society ... It is such a hidden disease but it affects the whole community."

Michael Schultz, head of the University of Otago's medicine department, said the funding of Maviret was a milestone in the treatment of hepatitis C infection.

"I personally treated over 50 patients in Dunedin with these self-funded and highly effective medications, and as president of the New Zealand Society of Gastroenterology I was fighting very hard for medication to become available," Prof Schultz said.

Michael Schultz
Michael Schultz
"We are now in a position to treat almost everybody with effective, safe medication."

Treatment with the drugs now funded by Pharmac was safe and caused very few side effects.

"I know of a patient who ran his first half-marathon while on treatment," Prof Schultz said.

Attention now needed to turn to finding the estimated 30,000 infected patients who had not yet been diagnosed.

"We have the opportunity to eradicate this disease in our lifetime," Prof Schultz said.

"However, the biggest hurdle is a mind shift," he said.

"Patients need to come forward and acknowledge their past and potential exposure to the virus.

"At the same time, GPs need to be proactive and start screening patients for infection."

In the meantime, doctors now had powerful tools which would make a real difference for people with hepatitis C.

"This will save lives and money as the progression to end-stage liver disease, liver cirrhosis and liver cancer is halted and in some cases reversed by treatment," Prof Schultz said.


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