Methadone programme to halt hepatitis C spread
Methadone maintenance therapy for injecting drug users saves lives and is a cost-effective way of treating New Zealand's growing and expensive hepatitis C health problem, researchers say.
Policies aimed at controlling the spread of the debilitating hepatitis C virus were needed urgently, lead investigator Dr Ian Sheerin from Otago University's Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences said in a statement today.
Of an estimated 19,000 injecting drug users in the country, 84 per cent had hepatitis C, but few of whom were receiving treatment for the virus, the statement said.
Nationally 30,000 people were estimated to have the virus, a figure expected to double by 2010.
Dr Sheerin, from the school's department of public health and general practice, said if the virus spread it would have rapidly escalating health and social welfare costs as sufferers became more debilitated, needed constant health care, and their livers failed.
Those costs had been estimated to rise to between $166 million and $400 million over the next 30 years unless adequate treatment and disease control was provided, he said.
It made more sense to invest in hepatitis C treatment at an early stage, than wait until people needed a liver transplant.
"There's a tendency in New Zealand to see this as just a drug users' problem, therefore why worry. That's ignoring the fact that hepatitis C is a growing and expensive health issue, which won't go away," Dr Sheerin said.
"The existence of a large pool of untreated infectious disease is a potential threat to everyone."
Because the hepatitis C virus was slow in its progression, there had been limited recognition of it as a public health issue and New Zealand was losing ground by about 1300 new infections every year.
The Christchurch school's research found that excess mortality from drug overdoses was reduced by 75 per cent among people on methadone maintenance.
Ninety-eight per cent of the participants stopped injecting drugs, reported large improvements in their health and also reductions in drug-related crime, the statement said.
There was evidence large numbers of drug users wanted treatment for hepatitis C, but did not get it. Meanwhile, there were also long waiting lists for methadone maintenance treatment.
Dr Sheerin said policies aimed at controlling the spread of the hepatitis C virus should include needle exchanges, education about risky behaviours, blood awareness, access to drug and alcohol services, as well as hepatitis C treatment.
"The size of the health problem is not being matched by government investment in communicable disease control. The policy documents say the right things, but the commitment has not been made to address the issue adequately," he said.
The Government had taken an important step in 2004 when it funded combination medication for hepatitis C, which had been found to be effective, curing 80 per cent of cases of some types of the virus.
Although hepatitis C medication was expensive, the courses were short and would prevent 39 per cent of future health costs.