In a New Zealand first Northland pharmacies are offering free, no-appointment tests and treatment for a disease dubbed ''the silent killer''.
Hepatitis C kills about 150 New Zealanders a year and is the country's leading cause of liver transplants, but most people have no idea they have the virus until it's too late.
In the hope of ending deaths and suffering caused by the blood-borne virus, as of yesterday the Northland District Health Board is offering tests and treatment though the region's pharmacies.
The tests take five minutes and don't require an appointment.
If the initial test is positive — and verified by a blood test — the pharmacy also arranges the eight-week course of medication with no doctor's visit required.
Among the first to get a test yesterday was Krystal Hastings, a volunteer firefighter who works at Unichem Orrs Pharmacy in Kaikohe.
Hastings said she got some home tattoos at the age of 17, a ''poor choice'' which had weighed on her mind since she had children.
Tattooing or piercing with unsterilised equipment is one of the ways hepatitis C is spread.
Also, as a firefighter at medical emergencies and crashes, she sometimes came into contact with blood, though she took all the precautions she could to minimise the risk.
''I've had a lot of fears and stress about having tattoos at home. There wasn't a lot of information about hepatitis at the time. I've got two kids now and I want to be as happy and healthy as I can for them, and I don't want to pose a risk to them.''
The test involved an almost painless prick to Hastings' finger. Within five minutes the test strip showed the negative result she had hoped for.
''It's a relief. It's put my mind at rest. I'd advise anyone to come in and get tested.''
Are you at risk?
If you answer yes to any of these questions you should consider getting tested:
■ Have you injected drugs?
■ Have you had a tattoo or piercing using unsterilised equipment?
■ Did you have a blood transfusion before 1992?
■ Have you lived in or had medical treatment in a high-risk country? (Includes Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Middle East and Indian Subcontinent)
■ Have you been to prison?
■ Did your mother, or another household member, have hepatitis C?
Northland District Health Board medical officer of health Catherine Jackson said hepatitis C was a ''silent killer'' which had only vague symptoms, such as tiredness, until the disease reached an advanced stage.
''Most people don't know they have it until it's too late and that's the tragedy of it. That's why we're trying to get word out about this treatment.''
In the past hepatitis C treatment took a year, made people unwell and was not very effective.
However, a new drug developed at Auckland City Hospital was 95 per cent effective, had minimal side effects and took just eight weeks.
''So it's a real New Zealand success story,'' she said.
It was estimated 40,000 New Zealanders had hepatitis C, just under 20,000 of whom didn't know they had it. The Northland figures were about 1600 and 800, though no one was really sure.
The most common ways of catching the virus were by injecting drugs, home or prison tattoos, or blood transfusions before 1992.
''We really want people to come in if they are in one of the risk groups,'' Jackson said.
People could also ask their GPs for a test but in Northland testing and treatment via pharmacies had been found to be highly effective.
It also reduced barriers because pharmacies were often Northlanders' first port of call for health advice.
Kaikohe pharmacist Jilly Alexander said the service was fast and free. If someone tested positive the pharmacist was involved at every step along the way.
''To maintain that relationship with someone from the day they are tested, to their treatment, to the day they are cured, is pretty cool.''
The Health Ministry aims to eliminate hepatitis C from New Zealand by 2030.
■ Pharmacies taking part are in Kaitaia, Kāeo, Kerikeri, Kawakawa, Dargaville, Whangārei (central, Tikipunga, Kensington, Kamo, Onerahi) and Ruakākā. Go to www.northlanddhb.org.nz/your-health/health-resources/hepatitis-c for more information.