Friday, 28 July marks World Hepatitis Day 2023, an important opportunity to give visibility to, and raise awareness of viral hepatitis. It also serves to drive better outcomes for people affected by viral hepatitis. World Hepatitis Day is one of only eight official health days declared by the World Health Organization. The theme set for this year is “Hepatitis Can’t Wait”.
World Hepatitis Day brings into focus our commitment to eliminate viral hepatitis in NSW by 2028.
If Australian and New South Wales targets are to be achieved, there must be a continuing urgency to redouble efforts to eliminate hepatitis as a global public health threat. Health advocates warn that many people living with viral hepatitis are unaware of their condition or remain unengaged in care. They may not realise their risk of liver disease and liver cancer.
Fortunately, after many years of steady decline in testing, and treatment, of hepatitis B and hepatitis C – particularly during COVID – we are seeing an increase in demand for these services.
“Public awareness is key. Understanding more about hepatitis B and hepatitis C and sharing this information could save lives and prevent people from developing serious liver disease or cancer,” said Hepatitis NSW CEO Steven Drew.
“Advances have been made in Australia and New South Wales on many fronts for both hepatitis B and hepatitis C,” said Mr Drew. “While much has been achieved through the combined and concerted efforts of community health organisations, clinicians, health departments, and researchers, we all agree that there is still much to be done to meet elimination targets in this country.”
In NSW, World Hepatitis Day falls within Hepatitis Awareness Week which runs 24-30 July. The week includes a range of local and state-wide activities, events, and initiatives to improve population outcomes for both hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Thanks to the game changing direct acting anti-viral (DAA) medications, people have the chance to be free of the virus, and to also be healthier, so they can be part of the future of their children, grandchildren and loved ones. So far, around 35,000 people in New South Wales have been cured of hepatitis C since 2016.
“These oral pill treatments have offered a revolutionary opportunity,” said Mr Drew. “It is important that people see their health professional to be treated and get their best life back. While hepatitis C initially has almost no symptoms, if left untreated it can ultimately result in significant liver disease.”
An event will be held at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern to mark World Hepatitis Day, featuring people with lived experience of hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and treatment and cure. The speakers represent the diversity of the viral hepatitis community and is a reminder that anyone can be affected.
However, there is no avoiding the fact that our First Nations peoples are disproportionately affected by both hepatitis B and hepatitis C, with prevalence rates above the general community rate. As part of the World Hepatitis Day event, we will be launching our new hepatitis B resource, Yarnin’ About Hep B. Developed through collaboration with Aboriginal health workers, community members and clinicians, this new essential resource is a companion to our very popular Yarnin’ About Hep C.
The event will also feature our popular HEP CURED mobile mural and a community lunch.
Mr Drew said, “A major activity this year in NSW is the roll out of the refreshed HEP CURED health promotion campaign. The campaign uses simple messaging and strong imagery to promote the availability and effectiveness of cures for hepatitis C. The core message instils a sense of connection with loved ones and significant others.
“HEP CURED sees Hepatitis NSW partnering with Local Health Districts across New South Wales to deliver local events connected to the campaign. This includes deploying our lived experience hepatitis C peers, alongside clinical staff, to encourage and deliver hepatitis C testing – including Point-of-Care testing – and health support services.”
Point-of-Care testing adds another tool to our kit, and is a gamechanger for people living with, or at-risk of hepatitis C. It makes testing, diagnosis and treatment initiation easier, more accessible and less time consuming. Most importantly, it means people can start their journey to cure sooner.
“Starting treatment is easy and affordable. The treatment is on the PBS, so out-of-pocket expenses are low, more so now with the reduction in the price of the PBS co-payment since July 1, 2023.”
“Around 30,000 people in NSW are living with hepatitis C and remain unaware of these game-changing testing opportunities, and treatment options,” said Mr Drew. “The HEP CURED campaign gets the message out there for everyone to see and encourages them to live their best life.”
For hepatitis B, while there is a vaccine, a cure is not currently available. Upwards of 80,000 people in NSW live with this virus. Like hepatitis C, if left unchecked, hepatitis B can cause significant damage to the liver including cirrhosis and cancer.
“Fortunately, a treatment, if required, is available to keep the virus in check, and significantly reduce the risk to health and the liver,” said Mr Drew. “The caveat to this good news is that regular annual testing for people living with the virus is essential and many in the affected communities are unaware of this essential health requirement.”
Efforts to eliminate hepatitis B as a public health concern face similar, but also different, hurdles to hepatitis C. This can be done, but not without clinical and community education, and by breaking down barriers caused by stigma, and by using appropriate cultural and in-language engagement.
Mr Drew said, “I encourage people to contact the Hepatitis NSW Infoline on 1800 803 990 for more information about the testing and treatment options available, or hepatitis generally. They can also contact us using the chat function via our website: hep.org.au.”
“It is not often we get the chance to eliminate a chronic disease, but we have that opportunity now with hepatitis C,” said Mr Drew. “I encourage anyone who is yet to seek out this medication, to explore their treatment options. Hepatitis NSW can provide information and support to anyone living with, or affected by hepatitis including family and friends of people living with hepatitis C.”
General information about hep B and hep C
Tens of thousands of people in NSW are living with viral hepatitis. Both hep B and hep C are viruses that can, without appropriate medical intervention, become life-long chronic conditions, eventually leading to liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and sadly, all too often, death. A significant percentage of people living with hep B or hep C are unaware they have it. Even where people know their status, many thousands experience barriers to access healthcare, treatment, or cure – this must change.
With hepatitis B, while there is currently no cure for this virus, babies born in Australia are vaccinated against it. Any adult who needs to be vaccinated can be. Testing is available, and encouraged, for anyone from an at-risk group. Should a person be found to be living with hep B, regular monitoring of their liver health is strongly recommended, and, if required, treatment can be prescribed to manage their viral load and prevent the onset of liver disease.
For hepatitis C, all Australians over the age of 12 have access to effective and affordable Direct Acting Antiviral (DAA) cures. This year marks the fifth anniversary of DAAs being made widely available in Australia through Medicare. Since 2016, more than 75,000 Australians have been cured of hepatitis C. It is no exaggeration to say that being cured of hep C can improve quality of life – many people who have finished their course of treatment report feeling greater levels of energy and alertness.
Hep C medications have a cure rate of 95 per cent. They can be prescribed by any general practitioner, or authorised nurse practitioners. Cure is usually achieved within 8 or 12 weeks, with minimal or no side-effects.
Testing for hep C is simple with a number of easy to access options. These include getting your GP to do a blood test, accessing a free and confidential Dried Blood Spot (DBS) kit to test in the privacy of your own home, or seeking a POCT through your Local Health District service. Should someone learn they have hep C, they should seriously consider commencing treatment and get cured.
Steven Drew, CEO,
0402 518 285