Standing up for Canberra

World Hepatitis Day 2012

I rise today to support Australia's efforts to address hepatitis C and I commend the member for Brisbane for bringing this issue to our attention. Hepatitis C is one of the most misunderstood health conditions in Australia. It is a virus that causes liver inflammation and liver disease. It is called a slow-acting virus because for most people afflicted by this condition it does not necessarily lead to death, although for a small number of those affected it does. But this condition does lead to a range of health problems that, left untreated, severely impact on the health of someone who has contracted the virus. Living with hepatitis C can restrict your ability to work, to parent and to engage in normal physical activities. Those affected can experience chronic pain. Earlier this year I met with John Didlick from the ACT Hepatitis Resource Centre and a constituent of mine and heard firsthand from him about what it is like living with hepatitis C. There are many challenges.

In Australia it is estimated that over 300,000 people have been exposed to hepatitis C, many living with the virus in its chronic rather than active stage, and 225,000 are living with it. Hepatitis C is passed by blood-to-blood contact. The tragedy of hepatitis C is that there are people who in their youth experimented with drugs, and they may have only tried them once or twice, and the result was them getting a virus that has devastating effects on their long-term health and wellbeing. While it is commonly associated with intravenous drug users, there are many who contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions, from tattoos, from unsterilized surgical equipment or through accidental blood contact with someone who was HCV positive. While, unfortunately, there is no vaccination for hepatitis C, modern medicine has developed a treatment known as pegylated interferon and ribavirin, which is most effective for most viral genotypes.

I am very proud to place on record that here in Canberra we have one of the most expert and recognised regimes for treating hepatitis C in Australia, if not the world. The Canberra Hospital, in my electorate, is one of Australia's leading treatment centres, and its clearance rate is as good as any other hospital in the world. From all accounts, the nursing staff and specialists at Canberra Hospital provide not only first-class medical treatments but also the psychological and personal support needed by those undergoing treatment programs.

While the success for clearing hepatitis C is very high for most of the genotypes, there are strains that are hard to treat—where more research and investment is needed—and this is why there are people who need to go through a treatment program more than once. What the general public is not necessarily aware of is that those going through the treatment process experience a real rollercoaster ride of side effects. For the fortunate few, however, the side effects are manageable. The various treatment programs, which can range from a few months to almost a year, can have extremely debilitating and stressful impacts.

No matter how a person contracted hepatitis C, it is important to acknowledge that the treatment regime can be extremely arduous and difficult to endure. What is significant about the member for Brisbane's motion is that it addresses some of the main reasons why we must put in place measures that reduce and hopefully eliminate hepatitis C in Australia. Research commissioned in 2012 points out that, for every dollar spent to treat hepatitis C, $4 is spent to combat the consequence of not treating hepatitis C. So it is not just a health issue; it is also an economic issue.

I note that in Spain and Portugal, two European countries that have in place preventative measures, like needle and syringe programs, they take the view that these are health prevention measures designed to stop the spread of a virus. I welcome any measures that stop hepatitis C from spreading and also measures that lead to improved health outcomes for those affected by hepatitis C. I encourage all Australians to learn more about hepatitis C and to support research and services to eliminate this virus from Australia. Once again, I congratulate and commend the member for Brisbane for this motion.

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