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New drug will combat NZ's high Hepatitis B rate

PHARMAC says its decision to subsidise a new drug for Hepatitis B will complement a screening programme for the disease.

The Government’s drug funding agency says treatment with the drug lamivudine will mean fewer people with Hepatitis B will die prematurely, and more will experience a better quality of life.

PHARMAC’s General Manager Wayne McNee says subsidising lamivudine ties in with the Government-funded Hepatitis B screening programme, which identifies non-carriers of the virus for vaccination.

“With lamivudine, now there is an effective treatment for people who are found to have chronic active infection. This is great news as Hepatitis B is an extremely serious public health issue for New Zealanders, ” he says.

The number of Hepatitis B carriers in New Zealand is high by international standards, with an estimated 55,000 carriers of the virus, and another 16,000 with active chronic infection.

Wayne McNee says it is estimated that up to a quarter of those with active chronic infection will die a premature death from cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

But he says lamivudine (brand name Zeffix) has been shown to be more successful in eliminating the virus than the current treatment with interferon alpha. And he says it will reduce the numbers of people progressing to advanced disease. Lamivudine also has fewer side effects.

“Many people don’t realise how serious Hepatitis B is. Anything to reduce the number of premature deaths and give a better quality of life to those people who are infected is a good thing,” he says.

Wayne McNee says the new drug is particularly good news for Maori, Pacific Island, and Asian peoples.

“The Hepatitis B virus is particularly prevalent in those three groups – about five percent of them carry the virus compared to one percent in other groups. It is estimated that about one in three of those who carry the virus will develop chronic active infection,” he says.

PHARMAC expects to spend about $5 million on the drug but says that will tail off because children are now immunised against Hepatitis B, so as they get older there will be fewer cases to treat.

[ends]

For more information contact General Manager Wayne McNee. Phone: (025) 429-212.


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