An estimated 230,000 Australians have chronic hepatitis C, and a quarter of cases are undiagnosed. Hepatitis C inflames the liver and unlike the A and B viruses there is no vaccine available. Pathology is important for diagnosing the virus.
Many people with hepatitis C may not experience symptoms, but left untreated the disease can cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), which in a small number of cases can lead to liver cancer.
Where liver damage has occurred, pathology can assess a patient’s health and if necessary, match a donor liver for a transplant. In Australia 40% of liver transplants are performed because of complications related to hepatitis C.
The most common way a person becomes infected with hepatitis C in Australia is through unsafe injected drug use, but there are other ways someone may contract the virus including: unsterile tattooing or body piercing; unsterile medical procedures or vaccinations; receiving a blood transfusion or blood products before 1990, or being born to a mother who has hepatitis C – there is a 2-5% risk of transmission to the baby where a mother has the disease.
The Australian federal government has targeted Hepatitis C for eradication and in March 2016 several new drug treatments were added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) meaning patients can access drugs at an affordable price.
A/Prof Simone Strasser from the Gastroenterological Society of Australia specialises in liver conditions, and is involved in the first treatment program which she says is proving wildly popular:
“We initially thought we’d treat 10,000 people in the first year, but in the first 2 months alone we treated 15,000 people.
The new drugs target several components of the virus making them more effective and minimising drug resistance. These drugs are about 90-95% effective and because access to them is so broad now it is possible that we could eradicate hepatitis C in Australia within the next 15 years.”
A/Prof Strasser says that early diagnosis is key to winning the battle against hepatitis C.
“Symptoms can take months or years to appear so I urge anyone who thinks they may be at risk, even due to an event in the past, to talk to their doctor about getting tested.
Diagnosis means treatment can begin quickly, limiting liver damage. Even if significant liver damage has occurred, treatment can lead to significant improvement, preventing long term complications such as liver failure or liver cancer. Successful treatment also means that people can’t spread the disease to others.”