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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21716

Ms GEORGE (1:18 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges that hepatitis C is the most frequently reported notifiable disease in Australia with about 240,000 people infected and an additional 16,000 new infections each year;

(2) recognises that hepatitis C poses a substantial threat to the health of Australians, due to the failure of the Government to fund the implementation of the National Hepatitis C Strategy; and

(3) calls upon the Government to fund the implementation of the National Hepatitis C Strategy in order to:

(a) reduce the transmission of hepatitis C;

(b) improve access to hepatitis C treatments;

(c) support and resource programmes which maintain and promote the health, care and support of people with hepatitis C; and

(d) prevent discrimination and reduce the stigma and isolation of those infected with hepatitis C.

I have brought this issue to the attention of the parliament because I am concerned that we are witnessing a growing epidemic of hepatitis C in Australia, coupled with a government strategy which has clearly made little progress in curbing this problem to date. I say that hepatitis C poses a serious public health issue because it is estimated that today about 242,000 people are living with the disease. Experts outside the department and government warn us that the epidemic should be treated as an urgent national public health problem. They argue that, unless there is an improvement in the efforts by this government to deal with the epidemic, on current projections up to 836,000 people may be infected by the year 2020. The infection rate, unfortunately, continues to rise significantly. In the last year that figures were available—back in 2001—16,000 new cases were identified. The research indicates that approximately 50 per cent of regular users of injecting drugs were thought to have been infected in the period 1996 to 2000.

So, in that context, it is critical that any government strategy understands the correlation between the epidemic and unsafe injecting drug use. It needs to be understood that 75 per cent of people who are infected by hepatitis C go on to develop some form of chronic infection. They suffer a diminished quality of life, especially those who unfortunately develop chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and cancer. To date, there is no widely available cure for hepatitis C, and it appears from what I have read that only a very tiny proportion of people infected are receiving any treatment at all.

A recent report conducted by the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board found that people with hepatitis C often experience social isolation and a lack of adequate support from family, friends and the community. Regrettably, the report pointed to serious harassment, discrimination and vilification at times as well. I think this arises predominantly from the failure by the community at large to appreciate the causes and the impacts of the disease and also the associated stigma that comes with the use of injecting drugs.

It is interesting to note that the government's response to this growing epidemic has been virtually to say nothing at all and to hide from public scrutiny a recent report that was prepared for the federal department of health by an outside body of experts. Media sources who were able to obtain access to the report noted that the report was highly critical of the Howard government for `abrogating responsibility' and refusing to provide leadership and resources to fix what they described as an `urgent' public health problem.

I guess that, when you look at what was reported in the media and at the content of the report, it is no wonder that the Minister for Health and Ageing sat on the report for months on end and refused to release it publicly. I am still not aware today that the matter is out there on the public record. But one of the newspapers was able to gain access to a copy of the independent report, which used words to the effect that the government strategy has not succeeded in controlling the epidemic, the urgency of the situation cannot be overstated and, in summary, the report is a damning critique of this government's failure to act responsibly and decisively on this issue.

It is clear that the government strategy is not working, for it has made little or no progress in controlling the growing epidemic of hepatitis C. The government's recent decision to commit $16 million over the next four years, while welcome, must be accompanied by an implementation plan and adequate funding or it will fail to address the matters that I have raised today. The urgency cannot be overstated. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Is the motion seconded?

Ms Hall —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.