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Speech: World Hepatitis Day - Hon Tariana Turia

Speech: World Hepatitis Day - Hon Tariana Turia

Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand Parliamentary Breakfast
Grand Hall, Parliament, Wellington
World Hepatitis Day

Hon Tariana Turia, Associate Minister of Health
Wednesday 10 August 2011, 7.30am

I want to thank John Hornell, the Chief Executive of the Hepatitis Foundation, for the invitation to join with you all today, on a most auspicious occasion. I am pleased to welcome to you all to your place.

This Parliamentary Breakfast has been called to mark the first ever World Hepatitis Day. The World Health Organisation has officially recognised 28 July 2011 as World Hepatitis Day to draw global attention to the need to be aware of hepatitis.

In itself, the designation of an international day to recognise the growing importance of viral hepatitis formalises this as a global public health problem.

Such a designation immediately raises the profile; providing an opportunity for greater understanding amongst governments, civil society, businesses, communities, families.

Having had relatives die of liver cancer, and seen far too many from Ratana Pa die young from undiagnosed hepatitis, I know this is an issue of huge concern.

But what really staggered me was that it is only now – in 2011 – that hepatitis has been elevated to such a status.

It is not as if hepatitis is a recent phenomenon.

The numbers are in themselves overwhelming.

• 1.4 million estimated cases of hepatitis A occur annually;
• An estimated two billion people worldwide have been infected with hepatitis B;
• 130 million people – at least – are chronically affected with hepatitis C.

Here at home - the numbers are proportionally just as significant.

But we have a unique difference – in that in all these statistics Maori, Pasifika peoples and Asians are disproportionately affected. We have to ask ourselves why?

And we ask why when chronic hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer; when hepatitis is preventable; when all it takes is a simple blood test to find out if you are affected –then why has it taken till now to establish an awareness and public information campaign?

I am sure everyone here knows the reasons underlying the low profile – and that has everything to do with attitude.

The stigma associated with hepatitis is a major issue confronting successful treatment and management.

In fact there was a time, according to anecdotal reports from experiences with the needle syringe exchange, that hospitals refused to treat hepatitis sufferers if they were intravenous drug users.

In preparing for today, I was told about three different experiences with hepatitis C that I’ll refer to as tahi, rua, toru.

Tahi was diagnosed in 1999 with hepatitis after using a contaminated razor blade in the early 1990s. Initially she was quite unwell. Her GP knew very little about the disease. She was stigmatised by her colleagues and eventually she lost her job. Flatmates wouldn’t share crockery or cutlery.

The waiting list for treatment was three years. Finaly she was treated with pegylated interferon. The treatment was difficult with severe physical and emotional side effects. But now - at last in 2011 - she is free of the virus.

Rua was diagnosed in 1997 when his doctor was treating him for another condition and noticed he was an intravenous drug user. He was treated in the year 2000 – the treatment changed every aspect of his life. It prompted him to beomce drug free. Nowadays he has a steady job, a partner and a young family.

Toru doesn’t know how he contracted hepatitis – it was simply picked up after having a blood test. The hardest part of his treatment has been the mental stress. Today however he has more energy, he no longer has to take afternoon naps, and he feels much healthier.

Those experiences told me a lot about the lack of awareness of the severity of the disease – and the importance about doing something about it.

One of the most common unifying factors is how long they were undiagnosed and untreated. It is this ignorance – or omission – that makes hepatitis known as the silent killer Literally, if you don’t know you have it – it can kill you.

That is why this breakfast – and World Hepatitis Day – is so important because it is essentially a call for action.

The theme for this year is Know it. Confront it. Get Tested. Protect yourself.

And I can think of plenty of other issues we might use that same theme for as well!

The great news is that hepatitis can be cured – and cure rates are improving.

And even more remarkably, there is fully funded treatment available in New Zealand.

I would hope that we can leave this breakfast committed to a campaign of spreading the word.

Spreading the message that you can protect yourself against hepatitis B by getting immunised. Being prepared to share strategies around preventing hepatitis by taking precautions – practising safe sex, using sterile injecting equipment – and not sharing razors, toothbrushes or drug-taking equipment.

And if there’s anything to get us going – it’s the knowledge that in New Zealand, less than a quarter of those infected with hepatitis C know they have it.

All of us here today, have a clear mission to change the status of this disease from being a silent killer to a condition that can be treated and managed. It can be as simple as one, two, three.

Most of all it comes back to attitude, to access to treatment, to moniitoring and management; and to improving our collective knowledge of chronic hepatitis. Know it. Confront it. Talk about it – and then let’s focus, together, on wellbeing as a global goal we can all own.

ENDS

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