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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13306


Ms GAMBARO (Brisbane) (13:03): I move the motion on the notice paper standing in my name and at the outset I want to acknowledge the work of the parliamentary group for HIV blood-borne viruses and STIs which is chaired by Senator Louise Pratt, and I am the deputy of the group. I also note that Senator Pratt has moved a similar motion in the Senate recently, raising awareness of 28 July as World Hepatitis Day. It is one of the four official world disease awareness days endorsed by the World Health Organization.

The group has worked very well in a bipartisan way to raise and increase the awareness amongst members and senators of the work being done in the areas of HIV and other blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a highly infectious, blood-borne virus that was first identified in 1988 and is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact. The most common cause of hep C in Australia is sharing contaminated drug injecting equipment, and unlike hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Around 304,000 Australians have been exposed to the hep C virus and more than a quarter of a million Australians suffer from chronic hepatitis C. Approximately 22,000 of these Australians are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and 16,000 of those cases are chronic and need treatment. This means that three per cent of the Indigenous population live with this infection and that is nearly three times the rate of the non-Indigenous population. Research has shown that if 100 people are infected with hepatitis C about 25 of those will clear the virus completely within two to six months of infection but will continue to have hepatitis C antibodies in their blood. About 75 of the 100 people who do not clear the virus will develop ongoing or chronic infection. Needle or syringe programs are the main prevention tool in Australia, and they save lives and they save money. However, as I said, to those who have contracted the virus 75 of the 100 will develop chronic hepatitis C. Current medications are available but they mean that most sufferers will have the common strain and they will have less than 40 per cent chance of being cured. Without access to cure, people with hepatitis C are at risk of liver disease, liver failure, liver cancer and ultimately death. Hepatitis C is already the number one reason for liver transplants in this country. As the motion states, it has now eclipsed HIV-AIDS as the number one viral killer in Australia.

The personal stories of people who suffer from chronic hepatitis C are very moving and I want to quote a story from a sufferer that was made available to me. I would have liked to have quoted the whole story but I only have limited time. This woman contracted hepatitis C due to drug use in her youth and over the years has had numerous flare-ups and three rounds of treatment. She says:

It has been five years since I relapsed. Since that time my health has been slowly declining. My liver scarring has progressed and I am exhausted and ache most of the time. I feel that I am living my life trudging through mud. My son is now eight years old. He is such a lovely child. He is energetic and very talkative. He has an acute sense of empathy which is unusual for a child his age. I wonder whether he will look back on his childhood and remember me as being exhausted all the time.

This is an example of the personal side to this terrible disease. However, there is a significant economic cost. The Boston Consulting Group has done analysis and modelling and has found that hepatitis C costs all levels of government $252 million annually and will cost $1.5 billion over the next five years.

In light of recent developments there is new hope for sufferers of chronic hepatitis C. Two drugs, boceprevir and telaprevir, were recommended by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Council in July of this year to be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The addition of these medicines increases the cure rate of hepatitis C up to between 60 and 80 per cent. As I said before, the current cure rate is less than 40 per cent. It is currently under negotiation with the department of ageing and once it has been completed the decision to list on the PBS is now with the minister for health waiting to go to cabinet. I urge the government to seriously consider elevating these drugs to the PBS to provide a hope of cure for the many thousands of sufferers of hepatitis C. I certainly commend the motion to the chamber.