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It’s Time for Action on Hepatitis C in New Zealand

It’s Time for Action on Hepatitis C in New Zealand

Urgent action is needed to turn the tide of New Zealanders infected with Hepatitis C each year.

Hepatitis C infects about 1000 people in New Zealand every year, a number virtually unchanged since 2000. The Needle Exchange Programme (NEP) is the key player in its prevention. It hassaved thousands of lives and millions of tax-payer dollars since its establishment in 1988. For every dollar spent on the Needle Exchange Programme in New Zealand, $20 is saved in health carecosts down the line by averting viral infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C that would have otherwise occurred.

World Hepatitis Day is this Tuesday, July 28. There is currently no vaccination for the Hepatitis C virus that causes debilitating chronic and acute health problems

Needle Exchange Programme national manager Charles Henderson says: “The Needle Exchange Programme has had great success in keeping rates of HIV/AIDS among New Zealanders who inject drugs at extremely low levels so we know the same can be done with Hepatitis C.”

“However, there is an estimated 55,000 people in NZ chronically infected with Hepatitis C. Removal of a virus that has become established within a population is much harder than keeping one out in the first place.”

“We need policy makers and health services to develop a multi-agency approach that scales up prevention efforts and promotes improved access to hepatitis treatment so we can significantly reduce the rate of new infections, reduce the prevalence pool and turn the tide of this neglected epidemic.”

“Without urgent action, Hepatitis C will remain a public health emergency.”

People who inject drugs are at greatest risk of contracting Hepatitis C. There is barely enough treatment to keep up with the number of new infections each year so preventative strategies are vital in slowing the spread of infection. We know this can be done because the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in New Zealand’s intravenous drug using community is the lowest in the world at 0.2 per cent of the population.

“The Needle Exchange Programme has great connection with this hidden population and the organisation’s free one-for-one scheme has been successful in achieving a reduction from 3 in 4 people injecting drugs having Hepatitis C to around one in two. However, there needs to be rapid scaling-up of equipment distribution if we are to curtail ongoing virus transmission.”

Stopping the spread of Hepatitis C is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, health care professionals, researchers and community based organisations. Regardless of how a person is infected with Hepatitis C, there is a stigma surrounding the disease but the social, medical and economic impacts for individuals and the broader community can be profound.

People who inject drugs face discrimination, particularly within health services. As a result, they have poor levels of general health that are compounded by other social problems such as poverty, unemployment, poor access to housing, welfare and other support services.

It is suggested that new generation treatment regimens could eradicate Hepatitis C in New Zealand by 2030 but urgent action is vital. Investment is required in services such as the NEP to prevent this most pernicious virus and ultimately, effects that are felt by all New Zealanders.


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