A GANG member broke down in tears when he heard he could be cured of hepatitis C within two to three months with a new drug that has been available only this year.
The gang member is among nine patients who have been successfully treated for the virus at a clinic in Kawerau. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.
Dr Paul Anderson, an upper gastro-intestinal surgeon, is running the free clinic along with Dr Emily McNicholas and Dr Ruth Brennan from the Kawerau Medical Centre. He said the availability of a new drug, Maviret, since February, had been a game changer in the treatment of hepatitis C.
“It has been successful, other than it was an underwhelming response,” Dr Anderson said of the clinic, which has seen 12 people come in to be tested. Nine tested positive for hepatitis C.
“We have treated nine patients successfully. Three of those came in just because they read about the incidence of hepatitis C with tattoos.”
Dr Anderson said those three tested positive and were treated with Maviret. After two months they were clear of the disease.
“Of the other six, a couple had a history of drug injection, and we treated them. We haven’t had to go to three months with the pill yet.
“Two months have been sufficient for all of those patients, and only one of them had a questionable amount of liver damage.”
Dr Anderson said if the patients tested positive, they conducted an ultrasound test on them at the clinic to check the damage to their liver.
“There was concern with only one patient that it might be progressive to cirrhosis. However, after we got rid of the virus in two months and checked the liver function was back to normal.”
Dr Anderson said although they had only had a few people test for the virus, considering it was in a small place such as Kawerau, it was successful. They were hoping more people would come in to be tested.
“It is a small number we have treated but if you project that forward it is probably hundreds of thousands of dollars it would save the health department in terms of future treatments and surgery.”
Nationally, 2000 people had been treated with the drug, which was funded by Pharmac, the Ministry of Health’s deputy director of public health, Dr Harriette Carr, said.
“Maviret can potentially cure 99 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C regardless of the type of hep C virus they have,” Dr Carr said.
The deputy director of the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit, Professor Ed Gane, said if it could be maintained, then hepatitis C would be eliminated from New Zealand within the next 10-15 years.
Those at the highest risk of the disease include drug users who use needles, people who have had tattoos, those who have been in prison, people who have received medical attention in a high-risk country, such as China, and those who have had multiple sexual partners, among others.
“But what has been established at even a national level is that people don’t recognise that they might be at risk,” Dr Anderson said.
Dr Anderson said one of the patients said he had been doing drug injections about 10 years ago and sharing needles with a person he knew was hepatitis C positive.
“We had another patient, he was a gang member, he came in and he had a family with three kids and his partner and supporter and he said: ‘I don’t want to give this to any of my family’ and did the blood tests and found out he was positive.
“I said we are going to cure you and get rid of this within two or three months and he broke down in tears.
“He said, ‘I am sorry doc’, but I said, ‘no, that is what real men do’.
“He was so grateful. Here was this big tough guy who was concerned about his whanau.”
Dr Anderson has treated a patient in the past in which the disease had progressed to liver cancer. The patient was successfully cured after surgery in Auckland.