NEW anti-viral drugs costing $50,000 a patient, which cure the most intractable strain of hepatitis C, are presenting the government with a fresh challenge to combat the disease that often afflicts injecting drug users.
The government's expert panel on prescription drugs is expected to announce tomorrow it is recommending that the drugs telaprevir and boceprevir be listed for prescription subsidies.
The measure, forecast to prevent more than 2200 premature deaths, still depends on a funding green light from the federal government.
The drugs would be used in combination with existing medications that have proved ineffective against the most common and hard-to-treat strain of hepatitis C. That strain has hit more than 100,000 of the 300,000 Australians infected with the disease over the past 25 years.
Hepatitis C has eclipsed HIV/AIDS as Australia's most lethal virus, but it has proved difficult to treat and cases of the disease are rising by about 11,000 a year.
A report commissioned by Janssen Australia, one of the drug makers involved, says that the annual cost of hepatitis C to the Australian health system is $252 million and rising.
But the study, produced by Boston Consulting Group, says only 2 per cent of people with chronic hepatitis C are treated each year.
The report identifies a treatment ''bottleneck'' and the need for more doctors and nurses to administer the treatment, particularly in rural areas.
Hepatitis expert Andrew Lloyd says that while the drugs are expensive, the savings from reduced treatment costs of liver disease, cirrhosis, cancer and liver transplants made it worthwhile.
''Hepatitis C has been in the community for decades and is now escalating quickly with rapidly growing rates of liver failure and liver cancer,'' Professor Lloyd of the University of NSW said.
The new treatment would benefit the most marginalised and disadvantaged in the community, including injecting drug users and prisoners, but the report made a strong economic argument that the community at large would benefit from this investment, he said.
Helen Tyrrell, the chief executive of Hepatitis Australia, said: ''As cure rates improve there is an obligation to ensure more people can take up the option to be treated for hepatitis C, this reinforces the need for an increased focus on treatment capacity.''
The federal Health Department's national hepatitis C strategy document has said previously that increasing treatment availability to combat the disease would be ''highly cost effective''.
''However, there is limited capacity in most of Australia's specialist hepatitis C treatment services to treat more people … waiting lists are growing in a number of jurisdictions,'' it said.
By Mark Metherell, Health Correspondent, Smh.com.au 23rd August 2012.
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