Doctors are calling on the Government and health officials to boost efforts to combat hepatitis in New Zealand in a bid to counter a big jump in the number of liver cancer sufferers.
More than 500,000 people in New Zealand and Australia are believed to have chronic hepatitis B or C infections.
They may have no symptoms, but without treatment the infections can progress to liver cancer or liver failure.
Liver cancer is one of the two fastest-increasing causes of cancer deaths in Australasia, and doctors say that is largely due to the increase in hepatitis.
Doctors from New Zealand and Australia are meeting in Auckland this week at the Australasian Viral Hepatitis Conference, and are today expected to issue a statement backed by leading virologists, clinicians and community groups calling on politicians, ministers and health officials to commit to more efforts to prevent viral hepatitis.
Dr Edward Gane, deputy director of the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit, said liver cancer was a "terrible disease".
"This is one of the few cancers where cancer mortality exceeds cancer incidence because the average survival rate is less than one year after diagnosis.”
Despite the development of new drugs to treat hepatitis, fewer than 2 per cent of people with hepatitis C and fewer than 3 per cent with hepatitis B are receiving treatment.
Dr Benjamin Cowie, a physician with the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service and an organiser of the conference, said he would like more resources to be used in the fight against hep atitis.
Cowie said he would like to see "reasonable treatment targets" of 5 per cent for hep atitis C sufferers and 10 per cent for hepatitis B sufferers being achieved.
"That's what we're calling on based on our experience and knowledge of the rapidly rising burden of viral hepatitis and attributable liver cancer in our countries," Cowie said.
One of the most successful treatments for liver cancer was liver transplantation. However, the annual number of liver cancer cases was 10 times the number of annual transplants.
One of the major concerns was that there was a significant number of people in areas where chronic viral hepatitis was prevalent who had no idea they had the disease, Cowie said. It was estimated that fewer than 50 per cent of hepatitis B and C sufferers in New Zealand had been diagnosed.
"There's a lack of community knowledge of viral hepatitis, the fact that it's associated with liver cancer and the fact that treatments are available," he said.
"Instead of intervening at a time when it's cost effective to do so, we're left with trying to do liver transplants and emergency responses where we could be acting to prevent it in the first instance."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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