This World Hepatitis Day, the Ministry of Health is funding free clinics across the country, as well as unveiling the plan to eliminate Hepatitis C from New Zealand
Around 45,000 New Zealanders are living with Hepatitis C – although half of them may be unaware they have it.
Clinics are popping up around the country Wednesday to provide free testing for the blood-borne disease.
Funded by the Ministry of Health, 18 clinics from Northland to Canterbury will test and treat Kiwis who find they have the blood-borne disease.
Due to symptoms often not appearing for many years, public health experts believe there are around 20,000 people in New Zealand who have the virus without their knowledge.
Around 1000 people contract Hepatitis C every year, 200 of whom die from it.
The clinics are a part of the Ministry of Health’s actions for today’s World Hepatitis Day – with the launch of the ministry’s national action plan for Hepatitis C also expected.
The action plan will set out New Zealand’s plan to eliminate the disease as a major public health threat by 2030 – coinciding with the World Health Organisation’s goal of global elimination by 2030.
Jo De Lisle is the regional co-ordinator for the Midland region DHB’s Hepatitis C response.
She was elated to see years of work coming to fruition today.
“It’s a great move for Aotearoa,” she said. “Although it’s only 1 percent of the population with this disease, there can be such a high-value outcome for these peoples’ lives.”
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will be on hand at the Anglesea Pharmacy in downtown Hamilton to announce the Government’s plan.
He said although there was an effective treatment for the disease, more testing was needed to make sure New Zealanders who needed it could get it.
“There is now a highly effective treatment that can cure up to 98 percent of those with chronic hepatitis,” he said. “But to achieve elimination we must ensure that everyone who has the virus is diagnosed so they can receive this treatment.”
Around 4500 Kiwis with Hepatitis C have received the treatment – a Pharmac-funded antiviral called Maviret – since February 2019.
The antiviral is administered in pill form over eight weeks, and has fewer side effects than previous treatments. Treatment will be available to any positive Hepatitis C test cases found at the clinics.
Ed Gane, hepatologist and professor of medicine at the University of Auckland, said early detection and treatment of Hepatitis C saves lives. “I encourage anyone with current or past risk factors for Hepatitis C exposure to get tested at his or her general practice or local pharmacy,” he said.
De Lisle said testing was made as hassle-free as possible. “They’ll prick your finger and they can tell in a few minutes if you’ve had exposure to the virus,” she said.
And with the new treatment, positive cases have a high chance of recovery.
De Lisle said the treatment process had become much easier on patients, with quicker effects and significantly less uncomfortable side effects.
“Historically, treatment took about a year, with side effects of depression and nausea,” she said. “I had a relative say Hepatitis was a monster, and the depression from the treatment was another.”
New Zealand Hepatitis Foundation CEO Susan Hay called the new treatment a miracle.
“It’s great to say there’s a virus, but also – here’s a cure,” she said.
Although the foundation mostly focuses on Hepatitis B, Hay said they had a symbiotic relationship with testing clinics for other strains of the virus.
Although more New Zealanders are affected by the mostly mother to child-passed Hepatitis B, affecting around 100,000 people, Hay said Hepatitis C was the focus due to the cure.
Hepatitis C can be passed on by sharing needles, blood transfusions and inheriting it from your mother, and can often be identified by the first symptoms of general malaise and tiredness.
Hay said that at the clinics, people don’t have to talk about how they may have contracted it.
“You don’t have to give any information about how you might have got it,” she said.
De Lisle said this was an important step in how treatment for the disease had changed over the years.
“Most people get it through drug use, so there’s a bit of stigma,” she said.
In the past, people were asked to write down how they think they may have got the disease before their test, but nowadays, doctors don’t ask.
“We don’t need to know,” said De Lisle.
She said there were stories in the healthcare system of drug users deliberately not being given treatment for Hepatitis C in the past.
But groups like Healthshare – De Lisle’s organisation – now try to bring testing and treatment to those who are most at risk.
They work with the Department of Corrections to reach people in prison and on probation, and living on the streets.
“We have a model that works for people living in cars and multi-millionaires,” she said.
The free pop-up clinics can be found at:
- Shackleton’s Kaitaia Pharmacy, Kaitaia
- Kaeo Chemist, Kaeo
- Unichem Pharmacy, Kerikeri
- Unichem Orrs Pharmacy, Kaikohe
- Kawakawa Pharmacy, Kawakawa
- Orrs Unichem Pharmacy, Dargaville
- Unichem Buchanans Pharmacy, Whangārei
- Kensington Pharmacy, Whangārei
- Unichem Kamo Pharmacy and Dispensary, Whangārei
- Unichem Onerahi Pharmacy, Whangārei
- Otaika Pharmacy, Whangārei
- Orrs Unichem Pharmacy, Ruakaka
- Anglesea Pharmacy, Hamilton
- Needle Exchange, New Plymouth
- Gordons’ Pharmacy, Gisborne
- DCM (Downtown Community Ministry), Wellington
- Hepatitis C Community Clinic, Christchurch