needleNearly half of the estimated 207,000 people living with chronic hepatitis B in Australia continue to remain undiagnosed while 15 percent of people living with chronic hepatitis C in Australia have not yet been diagnosed, according to official figures released late last month.

The statistics were revealed in the Kirby Institute’s Annual Surveillance Report 2013 released at the Australasian HIV&AIDS Conference in Darwin on October 21.

The report found that almost 400 deaths in 2012 were related to hepatitis B-related liver disease despite the rate of diagnosis of newly acquired hepatitis B infection declining among those aged 30 years or older as well as reducing substantially among people aged 15 -29 since 2003. In 2012, NSW had the highest number of diagnoses of hepatitis B infection, with 34.7 percent of the national total.

Hepatitis NSW CEO, Stuart Loveday, said if not diagnosed and managed properly, hepatitis B infection can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure.

“Deaths from primary liver cancer are climbing faster than any other cause of cancer death in Australia and untreated chronic hepatitis B is a major contributor,” Loveday said.

“An estimated 383 deaths in 2012 were attributable to hepatitis B-related liver disease.

“It is important to remember that many people with hepatitis B don’t experience any symptoms at all so getting tested is critical.”

Professor of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Australian National University, Narci Teoh, said treatments currently available for hepatitis B were highly effective, well tolerated and very simple to administer.

“We can tailor and individualise those treatments to people,” Professor Teoh said.

“It is critical for people with hepatitis B to be informed and start a conversation with their doctor in order to understand what this virus does and how to look after themselves and their liver.”

Loveday said vaccination was the simplest way to prevent contracting hepatitis B.

“While most children born in Australia have been vaccinated, if you think you might be at risk of contracting hepatitis B, consult your doctor about getting vaccinated,” he said.

The Annual Surveillance Report also found that an estimated 310,000 people living in Australia in 2012 had been exposed to hepatitis C with it thought 173,500 had chronic hepatitis C infection and early liver disease, 51,500 had chronic hepatitis C infection and moderate liver disease and 6,500 were living with hepatitis C related cirrhosis.

The other 80,000 people believed to have to have been exposed have cleared their infection.

The Kirby Institute estimates that almost 80 percent of all infections for hepatitis C occur among people who inject drugs, with only one percent of those people currently receiving treatment. Unlike other types of hepatitis, there is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C and medication is the only way to manage the disease.

In February, the previous Labor federal government announced it will provide more than $220 million over five years to subsidise hepatitis C medications boceprevir (Victrelis) and telaprevir (Incivo) through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
It is believed that 10-15 percent of all people living with HIV in Australia may also have hepatitis C and that co-infection remains a serious issue.

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