The Chills' dying frontman Martin Phillipps is given miracle reprieve from Hepatitis C
As Martin Phillipps drove across the North Island as part of The Chills' reunion tour, he received a call to tell him that it would not be his last.
Phillipps, the driving force behind The Chills, had been suffering with Hepatitis C since the 1990s. The virus attacked his liver for almost two decades, and in 2016, the 53-year-old musician was told he had barely a year to live.
The disease, coupled with heavy drinking, had taken its toll on his liver and was now threatening to end his life. "It got to the point where I was warned that even mouthwash with alcohol in it could kill me," he said.
But as The Chills made their way to Napier for the latest leg of their 11-stop national tour, Phillipps got the extraordinary call from his doctor to say a New Zealand-pioneered wonder drug named Harvoni, his last line of defence, appeared to be working.
Phillipps began using opioids and other drugs to self-medicate after his band was dropped from its US record label in the 1990s, he said.
Songs such as Heavenly Pop Hit and I Love My Leather Jacket had made the band household names in New Zealand – but it was as they sought stardom offshore that things went sour.
Phillipps contracted the virus after he and a friend had been getting high. The friend left one of their used syringes in a paper bag that Phillipps picked up. The needle pricked him and spread the virus, he said.
He had been suffering from severe depression, and that was only made worse by the virus. Dealing with hepatitis threw Phillipps into what he calls "the dark years".
The virus made him constantly tired.
All the things Phillipps had enjoyed were put at arm's length: performing was painful and spending time in nature took a toll. He remembered taking breaks from performances to vomit behind the stage.
"I have very low tolerance for anyone who says, 'oh everyone gets the blues'. You just have no f...... clue what it's like, that dark space is not the normal blues," he said.
Phillipps said he contemplated suicide last year when he was unable to get the help he needed.
There was a lot of wasted time so it was easier for me to just put on a movie, sit round, and drink whisky," he said.
In 2000, Phillipps received an early treatment for the disease. Back then they used a year-long course of Interferon. It was "more like chemotherapy, it just blasts everything and you feel really sick for a year," he recalled. Interferon had only a 30 per cent cure rate.
Auckland University professor Ed Gane pioneered drug trials to help eradicate Hepatitis C, and is credited with making treatments available to thousands of Kiwi sufferers.
Gane said pills such as Harvoni were huge improvements on the inaccurate and painful treatments of the early 2000s.
New medications were so effective they could rid New Zealand of Hepatitis C, Gane said. Side effects from the pills were minimal and they could be prescribed by GPs.
The Government's medicine buying agency, Pharmac, started purchasing medication that can cure Hepatitis C in July, 2016. To Phillipps' surprise, he was eligible for Harvoni.
He wasn't expecting any help. With his history of drug and alcohol abuse, "I thought maybe I'd used up my fair share".
Pharmac director of operations Sarah Fitt said it was "one of the most expensive oral medicines" purchased by the agency.
It costs $1000 per pill, and patients must take one almost every day for 12 weeks, Fitt said. The total cost of the treatment was about $73,000 per patient.
The treatment had between a 95 to 97 per cent success rate, she said.
Without Pharmac's help, Phillipps said the drug would have been too expensive and he's called on the agency to help fund more Hepatitis C sufferers for the drug.
"It's still more expensive to treat a person in hospital who has got Hepatitis C than it is to get these drugs," he said. "There are thousands and thousands of people out there who are going to need an estimated $100,000 of treatment each."
And indeed, New Zealanders who aren't eligible for the treatment are turning to overseas importers that bring in cheaper generic versions of the medication.
An Australian Dallas Buyers Club-style group is importing imitations of the drugs. The group say they want to see "affordable treatment delivered to every Hepatitis C patient". Some generic Hepatitis C drugs could be bought for about $10 a pill, they claimed.
After living with advanced liver cirrhosis for 17 years, Dunedin woman Hazel Heal flew to Australia to get treatment. Within two weeks, her liver function had improved, blood tests showed. Without the Australian help, she was unable to focus in the evenings and suffered chronic low energy, her quality of life dramatically improved, she said.
Cheaper drugs than Harvoni were in the process of entering the New Zealand market, a Pharmac spokesperson said.
Despite Harvoni's hit rate, Phillipps remained cautious about its effect on his life.
"I've got cirrhosis of the liver," he said. "Even if I'm cured, they can't get rid of that, that's damaged untoward. What it can do is, my liver won't have to fight the Hepatitis C virus. So what they're saying is, as opposed to being dead this year, I will get more years. No one quite knows."
Phillipps was cautious about using the word "cure" – at least yet.
"I've been at this point before a few years back and it came back again. You know it's looking pretty good, but it's not quite time for celebrating," he said.
He would not be confident the virus was gone until further tests in a few months.
"There's not much I can do – until it's happened – bar of course, eating healthily and not drinking," he said. "That sort of stuff I have to do for the rest of my life, it's part of the deal."
But despite Phillipps' refusal to say his Hepatitis C was gone, the good news has allowed him to start planning ahead. The band is planning a new album next year. And Phillips said he was finally getting his "driving optimism" back that had seeped away in the 90s.
With new energy, and even an extra decade, promised to Phillipps, he is focusing on getting The Chills back to where they were. Phillipps said the virus took years away from him, "there was an awful lot of mental confusion", and relationships suffered. He said he simply couldn't maintain any.
"I'm just trying to achieve something in the way of stability," Phillipps said.
On Saturday night, Martin Phillipps fronted the band's final scheduled stop in their national tour at the King's Arms in Auckland, where he told 500 fans at the sold-out venue that as of now he was "free of Hepatitis C".
He announced one more surprise stop: a hometown show back at the Captain Cook Hotel in Dunedin, where it all began in 1980.
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- Sunday Star Times