Hepatitis C Continues to Plague NZers As Govt Fights Losing Battle

The Otago Hepatitis C Resource Centre is continuing to struggle to survive amid funding issues from central government. The current six-month contracts are doing little to provide financial security to the centre. 

Hepatitis C is a disease that is spread through blood-to-blood contact, an occurrence that is much more common than one might think.

The ways people can contract the disease can be as simple as sharing a toothbrush, fighting, rough sex, and sharing notes you’ve used to snort drugs with. The issue is further compounded both by the fact that the disease can live for up to six weeks outside of the body and the asymptomatic nature of the disease; meaning symptoms are generally just tiredness and lethargy.

The government formed a group called the South Island Alliance (SIA) to enable the “five [South Island] DHBs to work collaboratively to develop more innovative and efficient health services than could be achieved independently.” However, Allison Beck of the Hepatitis C Resource Centre vehemently contests the effectiveness of this alliance.

Beck remains frustrated that “the government keeps throwing good money after bad. They gave an organisation about $8 million four or five years ago to sort Hepatitis C out, but they didn’t [sort it out], and in the meantime we lose our contract.”

That group began using money on property speculation, and though “that story did break in the media, it got shut down pretty quickly,” according to Beck, who has become despondent with the lack of progress being made on Hepatitis C in New Zealand.

The Hepatitis C Resource Centre helps anyone with the disease from Oamaru to Bluff. Beck believes that their annual funding of just $40,000 (which includes her wages) would be enough for the centre to run. “You don’t need loads of money, but you need enough to provide a service.” 

The centre currently has an office, a phone, and internet access, but lacks a car. When Beck needs to get to Invercargill or Oamaru for work she gets a bus, and any appointments within Dunedin require her to make use of her bike. 

A short journey across the Tasman and the situation is markedly different. Australia has come leaps and bound in recent years, from the disease being a sizeable public health issue to claiming that they are now on track to entirely eliminate the disease by 2026. New Zealand’s National Government has signaled no plans to follow suit. 

Professor Greg Dore from the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society said, “Australia is leading the world in the treatment of Hepatitis C, with the most rapid uptake of new treatments seen anywhere in the world, thanks to the unique approach Australia has taken in making these medicines available without restriction.”

An investment of AUS$1 billion by Prime Minister Bill Turnbull in 2015 and the lackluster addressing of the impact of the disease has caused a growing number of New Zealanders to seek out drugs supplied through an Australian buyer’s club. 

Despite the buyer’s club often being the best option for Hepatitis C sufferers to access life-saving drugs in New Zealand, Beck insists that it remains too expensive and out of reach for many sufferers. 

Beck criticises the ongoing bureaucracy involved in addressing Hepatitis C in New Zealand, with one of the finest examples being dealing with the disease’s prominence in the prison population, which is a hot-bed for the disease due to the prevalence of activities like fighting and rough sex. 

Despite the SIA’s lengthy and unsuccessful attempts at entering prisons for Hepatitis C educational and treatment purposes, Beck insists that her efforts have shown that “Prisons are happy for people to talk about Hepatitis C in prisons.”

With prisons being disproportionately populated by Maori, they face an increased likelihood of contracting the disease. The limited statistics the government has show that “it’s not really a Maori problem, and that’s a load of shit. I’ve seen a thirty three percent increase in my Maori stats in the last five years.”

The Department of Corrections told Critic that: "The prison population does have a higher incidence rate of Hepatitis C compared to the general population but, rather than the reasons you suggest, it is due to the fact that many prisoners engage in high-risk behaviours, such as tattooing with homemade tattoo guns, that increase their chances of infection. Often prisoners have engaged in high risk behaviours prior to arriving in prison and may not have accessed medical treatment or been diagnosed before being imprisoned. The Department is committed to ensuring that as far as possible our patients have the same access to treatment as people in the community and Prison can be a key opportunity for these people to get a diagnosis and medical treatment. With the support of Corrections nursing staff, local District Health Boards and pharmaceutical company AbbVie, a cure for some of our patients with Hepatitis C is now possible. To date, around 500 prisoners are Hepatitis C positive, many of whom are currently being treated, waiting to be assessed, or are waiting for the all-clear to say they are cured."

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2017.
Posted 10:38am Sunday 19th March 2017 by Joe Higham.