NZ could wipe out hepatitis C nationwide

(Getty / file)
(Getty / file)

A world expert on hepatitis C says the disease could be eliminated from New Zealand within the next 20 years.

Hepatitis C is an infectious blood-borne virus that attacks the liver, leading to liver failure and liver cancer.

New funding for drugs will see at least 2000 Kiwis cured each year, but that's just half the battle.

In New Zealand, around 50,000 people have chronic hepatitis C, but only 40 to 50 percent are aware they have it.

From July 1 Kiwis now have access to two new breakthrough medicines.

The new wonder drugs come in tablet form and have a 95 percent success rate. And for patients, it's life-changing.

Wendy Overy was infected with hepatitis C following a blood transfusion in the 80s, before screening was introduced. She says it always made her feel "diseased".

"It's like this alien thing inside you," she says.

Ms Overy was offered a clinical trial of the new drug Harvoni three years ago, and after 12 weeks the virus was gone.

"I was cured, and it was like wow, a whole new chapter of life now," she says.

Paul Adriannse was treated with Viekira Pak at the end of 2015 and was cured.

"About 10 tablets a day I had to take, minimal side effects, it was great," he says.

"So three months, blood test at the end of it, no virus detectable. I cried. I just burst out. She said, 'Look, you're cured', and I just broke down."

"This is the first infectious disease ever, where you've gone from discovery to cure within a quarter of a century," says liver specialist Prof Ed Gane.

But 50 percent of people don't know they have it, and the drugs will only treat one of the types of hepatitis C.

Pharmac chief executive Steffan Crausaz says it's a start. 

"We're expecting to cure at least 20,000 patients with hepatitis C with the treatments we've already announced, now we also need to look to the future," he says.

To wipe out the disease altogether, Pharmac will need to fund more treatments.

"Those treatments have recently been approved by the FDA and we think they will be approved here in New Zealand in the next few months," Prof Gane says.

"We're hoping that Pharmac will expand the access in the next year or so to include people with all genotypes."

Now there's a cure, it's hoped it will encourage more people to get tested and diagnosed for treatment.