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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 7430

Senator EGGLESTON (Western Australia) (19:07): Tonight I would like to speak about an important new drug that has become available in Australia for the treatment of hepatitis C. But, before I do so, I would like to make some background comments on this government's approach to health. This government's record of health reform has been somewhat dubious, to say the least. Last year the parliament debated the National Health Reform Amendment (Independent Hospital Pricing Authority) Bill 2011. The bill was concerned with establishing yet another bureaucracy under Labor's health reform program—the third bureaucracy, as if there are not enough bureaucrats already within the health system. Then, on 1 November this year, the government introduced changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule and to the provision of allied mental health services under what was known as the Better Access program. These changes saw the slashing of some $580 million from a scheme that had delivered 11 million mental health services to two million needy Australians with various degrees of mental health problems, the cutting of rebates to psychologists, and the removal of general practitioner psychiatric services from the schedule. That is very regrettable, because most people who have a mental illness do not suffer from a serious degree of mental illness. They do not suffer from psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia or manic depressive disorders, but they do have depression and other minor illnesses which are well treated by general practitioners. So the slashing of the GP rebates and the GP psychiatric services program is very much to be regretted, because it certainly reduced the efficacy of non-specialist health services available around this country.

More importantly, last year the government broke with longstanding convention on the listing of PBS medicines. It rejected the recommendation of the independent arbiter, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, by refusing to list several important new medicines on the PBS. It was a decision which undoubtedly caused many Australians to suffer, because treatments were not available at the subsidised rates which people pay when they go to the chemist shop. Very often the real cost of drugs which are available on the PBS is very high, but everybody pays a standard fee across the counter in the pharmacy and the government picks up the rest of the cost when the chemist submits a claim. By not recommending these new drugs, undoubtedly it has meant that the standard of Australian medicine has been somewhat reduced by decisions of this government.

What I would like to talk about tonight on the subject of PBS medicines is the work of a major pharmaceutical company, Merck Sharp & Dohme, in the field of hepatitis, in particular with reference to hepatitis C, which is one of the three common forms of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is the common form of hepatitis which people pick up in the community, and hepatitis B and C are both transmitted by exchange of secretions and by needle use when drug addicts share needles.

It has taken a little while for the different kinds of hepatitis to be identified, and hepatitis C is a more recent form of hepatitis to be identified. It is a slightly different virus and it is disease for which there was no real treatment. But now Merck Sharp & Dohme have developed a new drug called Victrelis, and that is the only effective treatment for hepatitis C that I have heard about.

According to the national advocacy group for hepatitis sufferers, Hepatitis Australia, 83 per cent of hepatitis C infections have resulted from unsafe use of needles by drug users and also from unsterile needles used in tattooing or body piercing, needle-stick injuries and exposure to blood in the home. It is estimated that there are some 212,000 people in Australia with chronic hepatitis C and that 7.5 per cent of these people are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Some 10,000 new infections occur in Australia every year.

There is obviously a lot of hepatitis C in this country, and it is a very serious disease not only because it leads to cirrhosis and liver failure but also, more importantly, because it leads to the development of liver cancer and has a very high death rate. In Australia there are more than 200,000 chronic sufferers of hepatitis C but only about 3,500 are treated each year. The means of treatment include surgery and liver transplants, which are very expensive, but obviously this new drug offers a quicker and easier basis of treatment. Hepatitis C can be cured with this drug, which is an interferon-based treatment, and there is a very high recovery rate with the use of this drug.

Victrelis has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and we are waiting to see whether or not the government accepts that recommendation and places this drug on the pharmaceutical benefits schedule. It has been shown that, for every 1,000 patients treated with Victrelis, there are 107 fewer cases of liver cancer, seven fewer transplants and 245 fewer liver related deaths.

This drug has a great deal of efficacy. It has been proved to be a drug that works, and I hope that the government accepts the recommendation of the committee who look at these drugs instead of, as has been happening over the last year or so, rejecting the listing of the drug on the basis of cost and that some consideration is given to the needs of the many hepatitis C sufferers in this country. I hope that the government will see its way clear to recognising the usefulness of this drug in the community and placing it on the pharmaceutical benefits list so that people can have a prescription for this medication, Victrelis, written by a consultant physician or in a hospital and have it administered to them.

This drug has been used with great effect in both Canada and the United Kingdom. I hope that rather than being worried about the cost of the drug to the budget the government will advise the department that they want this medication placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. As I say, it will be of great benefit to many people and reduce the mortality and morbidity rate for people with hepatitis C.