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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21719


Mr CADMAN (1:33 PM) —Nobody would deny that hepatitis C is a serious disease and one that causes great distress to sufferers. There are a large number of people suffering from hepatitis C in Australia. There are probably about 250,000 infected and an additional 16,000 new infections each year. It is very interesting to note that, over the last couple of years, a declining number of people have been contracting hepatitis C. That could be linked—although this is speculative—to the Tough on Drugs program, because 75 to 80 per cent of those that contract hepatitis C are intravenous drug users. The decline in the availability of heroin and products used by intravenous drug users could be linked to the declining number of people reported to have contracted hepatitis C. Recent data from the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research indicates that the number of reported diagnoses of hepatitis C infection in Australia has declined from a peak of 20,465 in 2000 to 15,953 cases in 2002.

That is a good result, but we still have to put more effort into the program. The government, far from lacking in dedication, has been active in the program since coming to office. Let me read out some of the commitments made by the government. In 1998 there was $1 million in special funding for social behaviour research. In March 1998 there was $700,000 in one-off funding for hepatitis C education and prevention. In the 1999-2000 federal budget there was $12.4 million over four years for hepatitis C education and prevention. Also in the 1999-2000 federal budget there was $30.5 million over four years for COAG. In the 2003-04 federal budget there was a further $15.9 million over four years for the continuation of the hepatitis C education and prevention program. Also in the 2003-04 federal budget there was $38.7 million for the continuation of the COAG Illicit Drug Diversion Supporting Measure.

All of these show a financial commitment as well as an on-the-ground ground commitment, working with the states for a strategy to bring under control this dreadful disease. There has been no lack of commitment from the federal government. Today is the first working day that interferon has been available to hepatitis C users. This is a further example—and a cost to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme—of this government's commitment to reduce the impact and to help treat chronic sufferers of hepatitis C. Look at the funds that have been involved in the government's commitment to the needle exchange program. Funding to the needle exchange program has increased from $13 million in the 1995-96 budget to $22.6 million last year. The Australian people have invested almost $150 million in the needle exchange program. That is a huge investment to help people who are suffering from this disease and who basically are intravenous drug users.

It is an insidious disease and causes a massive impact on those people who contract it. There have been recent reports of some very significant Australians who have contracted the disease. The government have been active. They have committed funds and are committed to the program. They are investigating the retractable needle program—already they have invested millions of dollars in that program—and have a continuing investment in education and prevention, in cooperation with the state governments. We have launched into a second strategy which will be spelt out in cooperation with the states and territories, because they too have to be involved. It has to be a national program. I reject the claims by the previous speakers that the government are not committed and we have not got results. The facts are quite different. We are getting results, we have commitment, we have put funds in and we are running programs to alleviate suffering and to prevent extension of this dreadful disease.