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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21717

Dr SOUTHCOTT (1:23 PM) —First, I will give some facts on hepatitis C: it is a blood-borne virus and over 75 per cent of it is contracted through intravenous drug use. The figures quoted by the member for Throsby are in part right—it is certainly true that probably about 240,000 people are infected with hepatitis C and there are probably about 16,000 new infections per year. But the member for Throsby was wrong when she said that this is a growing epidemic. 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 cases in 2000 to 15,953 cases in 2002. These are not estimates; these are reported cases. This was the lowest annual number of hepatitis C diagnoses reported in the past five years. The reported number of newly acquired hepatitis C infections has declined from 672 cases in 2001 to 434 cases in 2002.

The decline in reported diagnoses certainly offers no evidence at all for the member for Throsby's proposition that what we are seeing is an escalating epidemic, but there is no cause for complacency. I will give a bit of detail on the measures that the government has taken through various types of funding over the last five years, but, first, I will just say a little about hepatitis C. At the end of 2001, there were 210,000 people living with hepatitis C infection in Australia. I will take the average figure, because all of these are models. Fifty-three thousand people had been exposed to hepatitis C virus but had cleared the virus and were not chronically infected; 124,000 were chronically infected with hepatitis C with stage 0 or stage 1 liver disease, which is an early stage of liver disease; 27,000 were chronically infected with hepatitis C virus with stage 2 or stage 3 liver disease; and about 6½ thousand were living with cirrhosis. As I said before, to date the majority of hepatitis C infections have been contracted through the sharing of injecting equipment among people who inject illicit drugs.

It is important to recognise that Australia is leading the international community. Australia has developed a world-first strategic document—the National Hepatitis C Strategy, which runs from 1999 to 30 June 2004. What we are looking at is developing a second National Hepatitis C Strategy in consultation with all of the stakeholders. It is important to recognise that the strategy is not a funding instrument. It provides a framework for coordinated national action on hepatitis C in partnership with the people affected, governments at all levels and medical, scientific and health care professionals.

As to funding for hepatitis C, in February 1998 the government announced $1 million for social and behavioural research to develop strategies to combat the spread of hepatitis C. This was done through the NHMRC. In March 1998, there was a one-off grant of $700,000 for hepatitis C education and prevention. In the 1999 budget, the government announced $12.4 million over four years for hepatitis C education and prevention initiatives. There was also $30.5 million for needle and syringe programs through the COAG agreements. In this year's budget, again, there is $15.9 million over four years to continue hepatitis C education and prevention initiatives and $38.7 million for continuing illicit drug diversion supporting measures, including needle and syringe programs.

On the issue of reducing transmission, as I said, the current National Hepatitis C Strategy runs until 30 June next year. The second national strategy will begin on 1 July 2004. It is being developed in consultation with stakeholders. On the point in the motion relating to increased access to treatment, from 1 November 2003 hepatitis C sufferers will have access to pegylated interferon. There has been a section 100 listing for pegylated interferon. (Time expired)