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People at risk of hepatitis urged to get tested

19 May 2008

People at risk of hepatitis urged to get tested

People who may be at risk of hepatitis C are being urged to get themselves tested. The Ministry of Health is joining other groups to raise public awareness of hepatitis C for World Hepatitis Day on May 19.

Associate Professor Edward Gane of the NZ Liver Transplant Unit says people who have ever injected drugs using unclean or shared equipment, or who have had tattoos or piercings in unsterile conditions are among those at risk.

?Hepatitis C is a very infectious virus that is transmitted through direct blood-to-blood contact. It is an inflammation of the liver which stops it working properly but many people infected will have no symptoms at all.?

One of those who will tell their story is the founder of the New Zealand band, the Chills. Martin Phillipps contracted the virus ten years ago when he pricked himself by accident. He has not been able to work since and urges others who may be at risk to get tested.

Associate Professor Gane, who chairs the Hepatitis C Treatment Advisory Group says most people who contract the virus will go on to become carriers for life.

?Funded antiviral therapy is currently available which will cure 60 percent of people with hepatitis C. However, for those who are not cured and for those who decline or are unsuitable for antiviral therapy, there are other management options which may reduce the effects of this condition. It is important to avoid heavy alcohol and cannabis use and to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

?Just because you have no symptoms of the disease does not mean you are in the clear. Some people are diagnosed only following the development of liver failure or liver cancer, when treatment is not possible and survival is often only weeks. The sooner you get tested, the better.?

At least ten percent of people diagnosed with hepatitis C have no idea how they got it. But Associate Professor Gane says anything that can puncture the skin can carry infected blood, including razors and toothbrushes.

It is estimated that between 45,000 and 50,000 people in New Zealand have been infected with hepatitis C, with around 25 new infections every week. Unusual tiredness is the most commonly reported symptom in those with the virus.

Those who may be at risk of hepatitis C include:

· people who inject drugs regularly using unclean or shared equipment or who have ever injected drugs using unclean or shared equipment · people who have spent time in prisons

· people who have tattoos or piercings in unsterile conditions

· some migrant groups from countries with high prevalence of hepatitis C

· people receiving unscreened blood, blood products, or organ transplants prior to the introduction of universal screening for hepatitis C, of blood and blood products. Universal screening was introduced in New Zealand in July 1992 but New Zealanders who received either blood transfusions blood products or organ transplants overseas after this date may still be at risk.

A helpline has been set up for those needing support and advice. The number is 0800 224372.

ENDS

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