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Hepatitis C announcement a milestone for Australian public health

December 2015

Today’s announcement by the Federal Government – that it intends to spend $1 billion in subsidising cutting-edge, life-saving drugs for sufferers of Hepatitis C – is a milestone in Australian public health which will change the lives of thousands of people and particularly the most marginalised, according to one of the organisations leading the fight against the disease.

St Vincent’s Health Australia – which has had a long tradition in Hepatitis C research, treatment and advocacy via its two St Vincent’s public hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne – said the government, and particularly the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, should be congratulated for their commitment.

“It’s hard to overemphasise how big this decision is. It’s a truly momentous event for public health in Australia,” said Toby Hall, Group CEO of St Vincent’s Health Australia.

“By making these groundbreaking drugs affordable for all Australians, thousands of very ill people will not only see their quality of life improve, but their lifespan will likely be significantly extended. This is a true lifesaver.

“Prior to today’s decision, accessing these drugs in Australia was only for the very rich. It can cost in excess of $100,000 for a 12 week treatment.

“The really key point for me about Australia’s approach – and for which the Minister deserves full credit – is that this decision is importantly about providing ‘access for all’.

“The government could very easily have limited access to only the worst sufferers of Hepatitis C, those whose lives are most at risk, to reduce the potential budget impact because of the enormous expected demand – as has occurred in other countries.

“Or, as occurs in the US, where most states place restrictions on the drugs and won’t allow access to Hepatitis C sufferers who are alcohol or drug users.

“From our perspective that would have been unconscionable. The majority of Hepatitis C sufferers are the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society – sex workers, prisoners, people who inject drugs. Shutting them out of treatment would go against our society’s values and everything our public health system stands for.

“To give you some perspective, around one-third of all Australian prisoners have Hepatitis C, yet only an estimated 5% of sufferers are able to access treatment.

“So to have the Australian Government reject a restrictive approach and champion access for all is truly praiseworthy.

“In particular, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee must be applauded for the stance it took in recommending to the Minister that there should be broad access to these drugs.”

Professor Greg Dore, Head of the Viral Hepatitis Clinical Research Program at the Kirby Institute, and an Infectious Disease Specialist at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, said the announcement would put an end to Hepatitis C sufferers having to try import generic versions of the drugs into the country.

“Recently we’ve seen well-informed Hepatitis C sufferers organise themselves into ‘buyers clubs’ to purchase cheaper generic versions of these drugs and bring them into the country,” said Professor Dore.

“But the majority of Hepatitis C sufferers we see at our hospitals don’t have the information or resources to take advantage of these or other initiatives.

“Caring for Hepatitis C patients from extremely vulnerable backgrounds has been a feature of our two public hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne for many years. Our clinicians and researchers are international leaders in this field.

“Our clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney was the first in Australia to treat active drug users with Hepatitis C in the late 90s and early 2000s, despite a great deal of opposition.

“We’ve always had a commitment to treating people irrespective of how they acquired the disease or of any ongoing lifestyle choices.

“For the communities our hospitals serve, today’s decision is a god send.

“We warmly congratulate Sussan Ley and her colleagues for negotiating such an impressive – and internationally unique – outcome,” said Professor Dore.