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Test me. Treat me. Cure me

Dec. 2, 2019

Test me. Treat me. Cure me. Identifying Hepatitis C.

50,000 New Zealanders are living with Hepatitis C and half of them do not know it. The only way you can find out if you have it is to get your blood tested.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver. Acute Hepatitis C is the immediate infection that lasts a couple of months. A lucky 1 in 4 clear the infection completely within 6 months without treatment, but 3 out of 4 of those affected cannot clear the infection and end up with a lifelong problem known as Chronic Hepatitis C. Because many people have no symptoms, Hepatitis C can be silently causing long term liver damage including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Last year more than 200 New Zealanders died of complications of Hepatitis C, and that number is going up 10% per year. On average those with chronic Hepatitis C have 18 years shorter life expectancy.

Hepatitis C is spread by blood. It is a very resilient virus and can survive in blood outside the body for days to weeks. In New Zealand the first infections were transmitted in the 1960's from contaminated blood transfusions, however universal donor screening was initiated in 1992 and has successfully eliminated this as a mode of transmission here. In the 1970s onwards, transmission through injecting drugs became problematic.

You may be at risk if you had a blood transfusion prior to 1992, if you have ever injected drugs or if you have ever had a tattoo or a body piercing with unsterile equipment. If you have ever received health care in South East Asia, India, the Middle East or Eastern Europe you may be at risk. If your mother, a household member or someone you share razors or toothbrushes with has Hepatitis C, it is a risk factor.

Most people with Hepatitis C do not know they have it until their liver becomes very damaged. If symptoms occur, they can be nonspecific and include tiredness, abdominal pains, nausea, reduced appetite, muscle aches, fever, jaundice, dark urine, itch and depression. If you have ever been told that your liver function is persistently abnormal or that you have fatty liver, it is worth ruling out a Hepatitis C infection.

If you are at possible risk, it is worth asking your GP for a simple blood test to identify Hepatitis C. If it comes up positive you will be offered a FIbroscan (liver scan) to see if you have cirrhosis (scarring of your liver).

In the last few years treatments have vastly improved, are well tolerated and are very effective. Most people living with Hepatitis C can be cured. In February this year Pharmac funded a direct acting antiviral called Maviret which can cure 98% of those affected with a once daily dose for only 8 weeks (in treatment naïve patients with no cirrhosis). This is a very exciting development and we look forward to curing more and more Hepatitis C in our community.