A new report has warned that action is needed to address hepatitis C overtaking HIV/AIDS as the country’s number one viral cause of death.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report reveals that at least 300,000 Australians have been infected with the liver virus since it was first identified nearly 25 years ago, and estimates that 11,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

The report, commissioned by Janssen Australia, was launched in federal Parliament today and highlights a lack of treatment capacity and a significantly higher incidence in groups such as prison inmates and indigenous Australians.

Modelling by BCG concluded that new direct-acting antiviral medication could prevent more than 2,200 premature deaths and almost 10,000 cases of serious liver disease over the lifetimes of those living with hepatitis C.

Two new medications in this class have recently been approved for use in Australia and recommended for PBS listing.

“Many people with hepatitis C can live with the disease for as many as 20 years without being aware of it,” said report contributor and University of New South Wales researcher Professor Andrew Lloyd.

“Hepatitis C has been in the community for decades and is now escalating quickly with rapidly growing rates of liver failure and liver cancer.”

While the disease has now eclipsed HIV/AIDS as the number one viral killer in Australia, BCG reports that only two percent of people with chronic hepatitis C are treated each year.

“Hepatitis C is one of the very few chronic viral infections that may be cured, however the rate of treatment uptake is 40 times lower than the rate for HIV infection,” Lloyd said.

BCG reports that for every dollar spent on treatment, four dollars are currently spent dealing with the consequences of untreated conditions related to hepatitis C, including cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer, which can result in the need for a liver transplant.

It also predicts that the annual cost of hepatitis C to the national health system is $252 million and rising. Over five years it is estimated to cost the government $1.5 billion.

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