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Thousands get a cure as Hep C drugs make PBS list in Australia
  February 19, 2013 - 2:01PM
Melissa Davey

Thousands of patients with a previously incurable strain of hepatitis C will be disease-free, with two new drugs that provide the first breakthrough in treating the chronic condition in a decade being included on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

For patients unsuccessfully treated by existing drugs, hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, liver failure and the need for a liver transplant.

But more than 130,000 patients will benefit from two drugs, boceprevir and telaprevir, which the federal Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek announced on Tuesday would be subsidised by the government. Patients would otherwise pay up to $78,000 for the drugs.

''More than 40 per cent of people seen needing liver transplants have had chronic hepatitis C, these drugs, in combination with existing treatments, will lead to a much better cure rate,'' Ms Plibersek said.

''Over the next few years we hope 9000 cases of liver damage will be prevented and we will stop the need for liver transplants for 870 people.''

Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood transmission and is a significant public health issue in Australia, with about 220,000 Australians living with a chronic form of the disease in 2011.

The head of the liver transplant unit at Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney, Professor Geoff McCaughan, said the drugs would cure up to 75 per cent of patients with genotype 1 hepatitis C - the most common strain of the disease. Current treatments cure half of those patients.

''Treatment time will also be cut in half for many patients, from one year to six months,'' Professor McCaughan said.

Hepatitis C is one of the most commonly reported notifiable diseases in the country and there is no vaccine.

Warren Fahey has had the disease since 1979 after he received blood transfusions following a motorcycle accident. He had two unsuccessful treatments and said he has been ''buying time'' ever since.

''I adopted a healthy lifestyle, I exercise, eat well and drink minimal alcohol, all to buy time after the treatments did not work,'' he said.

''So I'm euphoric about these new drugs that might cure me and that they are being subsidised, otherwise they would be out of reach for most people.''

He urged people with the condition to see their doctor to see if they were eligible for the treatments.

The government will provide more than $220 million over five years to subsidise the medicines, which are expected to be available in the next few months at a maximum cost to patients of $36.10.

Other newly subsidised drugs include an oral contraceptive, levonorgestrel, a treatment for Parkinson Disease, rotigotine, and a drug for type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, sitagliptin with simvastatin.

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