The World Health Organisation (WHO) has referred to hepatitis C as “a viral time bomb” due to the scale of human tragedy associated with the global hepatitis C epidemic. The vast majority of people affected by this disease are people who have injected drugs. Of the estimated 16 million people who inject drugs worldwide, 10 million are living with hepatitis C. Australia is part of this growing global disaster with over 300,000 people in Australia already exposed, the vast majority of whom are people who inject or have injected illicit drugs.
“These staggering figures should have been enough to motivate governments and the health system generally to mount a truly effective response to hepatitis C. Sadly however, we continue to see an unwillingness on behalf of governments and the health sector in Australia to address the real issues that are driving new hepatitis C infections and keeping injecting drug users away from life-saving treatment” said Annie Madden, Executive Officer of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL).
World Hepatitis Day is 28 July and as the national organisation representing those who are most affected by hepatitis C, AIVL is calling for more action and a more focused commitment from governments across Australia to driving down new infections and increasing the number of injecting drug users accessing treatment for hepatitis C. “Australia has made some progress towards bringing down the number of new hepatitis C infections but we can’t afford to pat ourselves on the back and pretend the job is done when we continue to see many thousands of people contracting this entirely preventable infection every year” Ms Madden said.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of eminent, highly respected individuals recently released a new global report on hepatitis C. The report titled: “The Negative Impact of the War on Drugs on Public Health: The Hidden Hepatitis C Epidemic” states that hepatitis C “can be prevented among people who use drugs when proven harm reduction interventions (such as NSP) are delivered at the required scale.”
“While Australians have better access to new injecting equipment than many other countries, this does not mean that we have done enough to ensure NSPs are to scale or delivered in the way they need to be to deal with our ongoing hepatitis C epidemic. We continue to have high rates of re-use of injecting equipment, virtually no 24 hour NSPs, too few after-hours dispensing machines, too many limits on the amount and types of equipment available and, no NSP in Australian prisons – an environment that is internationally regarded as one of the primary drivers of the hepatitis C epidemic” declared Ms Madden.
We know that people who inject drugs make positive choices in relation to their health when provided with the means to do so. The response of drug users to the HIV epidemic is a case in point. The close links with injecting drug use makes hepatitis C a highly stigmatised condition. People are reluctant to ask for a hep C test or begin treatment as it is tantamount to admitting you have or do use drugs and people know the negative treatment they will receive if they are linked to injecting drug use.
“Hepatitis C can lead to liver failure and liver cancer, there is an effective, government-subsidised treatment available for hepatitis C but ongoing criminalisation and systematic discrimination is driving people underground and away from treatment services. World Hepatitis Day presents an opportunity to challenge the way we think about and treat people who inject drugs. A failure to act means continuing to play our part in condemning people to contract preventable diseases from which some will die. Are we really comfortable with that? Have we all done enough to let Australian governments know we expect more and better when it comes to addressing hepatitis C?” concluded Ms Madden.