Westmead medical professionals call government to subsidise hepatitis C drugs

Doctors told Nell Beveridge that she may have been living with hepatitis C for up to two decades before she was finally treated and cured of it. 

‘‘The symptoms affect your life every day,’’ she said. 

‘‘There’s flu-like symptoms every day, you just feel lethargic but since being treated I’ve got so much energy back, I feel fine.’’

Ms Beveridge considers herself  ‘‘lucky’’ because she was infected with the strain hepatitis genotype 3, which has a successful treatment rate of about 80 per cent.

She was cured before the virus caused major liver disease or cancer.

But many of the 12,200-odd people living with hepatitis C in western Sydney have the other common strain known as genotype 1.

The success rate for curing genotype 1 is just 50 per cent with the drugs subsidised by the Commonwealth government. 

‘‘It just doesn’t make sense,’’ she said, ‘‘it’s like a lottery.’’

Ms Beveridge joined medical professionals at Westmead Hospital yesterday to call on the government to add the new drugs — telaprevir and boceprevir — to the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme.

Chief executive of Hepatitis NSW Stuart Loveday said the federal government was putting costs ahead of people’s health by not funding the drugs, which were approved by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee in July.

‘‘There is a process to get drugs approved (for the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme) and the government needs to be very thorough,’’ he said.

‘‘But there is a case to argue the Commonwealth government is putting the bottom-line of the budget at the forefront of its goals rather than treating people living with hepatitis.’’

The federal Minister for Health Tanya Pilbersek referred questions to a spokeswoman for her department.

She said the PBS Committee’s approval of the drugs was ‘‘a very important first step’’ in the process for funding the medication but there were other considerations.

‘‘Such as pricing negotiations with the product’s sponsor, finalisation of the conditions for listing, quality and availability checks and consideration by the [federal government’s] cabinet [ministers].   

‘‘The government has committed to use its best endeavours to implement a maximum time frame of six months for consideration and decision by cabinet.’’ 

‘‘These are high-cost medicines, with financial expenditure of several hundred million dollars over four years.’’  

The hepatitis C facts:

■ More than 225,000 Australians live with hepatitis C;

■ Just two per cent of sufferers are treated for the virus;

■ Hepatitis C is fatal in about 5 per cent of cases;

■ Drinking alcohol increases the damaged caused by hepatitis C to the liver.

■ The medication telaprevir and boceprevir are used in 25 countries, including the US.

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