By Deborah Cornwall
Posted Sat 15 Mar 2014, 3:11pm AEDT
Professor Geoff McCaughan says the new hepatitis C treatments have limited side effects.
Giulio Saggin, file photo: ABC News
Public health experts say effective new drugs to treat hepatitis C should be subsidised in Australia to avert a looming strain on the national health system.
Australians who contracted hepatitis C decades ago are only now starting to develop terminal liver disease at an alarming rate.
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."
New hepatitis C treatment comes at a high price
Professor McCaughan and his colleagues are lobbying hard to have the new therapy subsidised in Australia, starting with the most vulnerable patients.
"If you walk in the door with chronic hepatitis C infection, academically and medically you should be able to get these medications at some stage within the next one to three to five years," he said.
"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."
“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.”
Professor Geoff McCaughan
Hepatitis C is also such a stigmatised disease there are no high-profile lobby groups and sufferers themselves tend to keep their condition a secret.
Mr Wallace says such is the lack of understanding of the disease, few Australians even realise most people with the virus are middle class citizens.
"Once you disclose you've got hepatitis C, you are publicly disclosing the fact that you've injected drugs, and injecting drugs in Australia is a shameful thing to admit," he said.
"It's really interesting - it's been 30 years since I last injected drugs, and most of the people that I interact with on a daily basis would have absolutely no idea of my history."
Professor McCaughham said hepatitis sufferers come from all walks of life.
"They're lawyers, some of them are doctors, some of them are bankers, musicians, tradesmen - you know, the late 60s and 70s was a pretty wild time," he said.