Kiwis affected by hepatitis C are celebrating Pharmac's full funding of a new drug that has the potential to cure people with the virus within weeks.
There could be an estimated 50,000 New Zealanders living with hepatitis C – and around 1000 new infections were being reported each year.
It was often referred to as a silent epidemic because people commonly didn't notice any symptoms until 20 or 30 years after infection.
But left untreated, it could cause cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
The virus also remained surrounded by heavy stigma because it had been linked to intravenous drug use, and many people living with it found it difficult to tell others they carried it.
Pharmac recently confirmed funding for Maviret, a new once-daily tablet treatment for adults with any major genotype of the virus.
That funding kicked in today.
The therapy – involving two direct-acting anti-viral agents that worked to block the lifecycle of the virus – could push hepatitis C down to non-detectable levels within an eight-week treatment course.
Previous treatments were only available to around 3000 people due to the type of hepatitis C they had.
"Chronic hepatitis C is an important cause of liver failure, liver cancer and liver-related deaths in New Zealand," said Professor Ed Gane, the chief hepatologist, transplant physician and deputy director of the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit at Auckland City Hospital.
"With early diagnosis and new treatments we could prevent hepatitis C-related illness and death in New Zealand."
"The funding of new treatments takes New Zealand one step closer to eliminating hepatitis C as a public health threat and reaching the World Health Organisation target of global elimination of hepatitis C by 2030."
Health Minister David Clark expected Maviret to cure more than 99 per cent of New Zealanders with hepatitis C, regardless of the type or severity of liver disease and previous treatment.
"This provides a unique opportunity to eliminate hepatitis C from New Zealand," Clark said.
"This should save 2500 lives and removes the need for more than 500 liver transplants."
There was a requirement for pre-treatment testing, and because of this, prescribing by general practitioners and other community-based prescribers would become generally more straightforward, Clark said.
"This is a great time for anyone who may have been exposed to hepatitis C to get tested if they haven't done so already and benefit from this drug if they need it.
Hazel Heal, a Dunedin woman who has survived the virus, described the new funding as a triumph.
She marked the milestone with other members of the group Hep C Action Aotearoa in Auckland's Queen St today.
"We've been working on this for a long time and we know what a difference it's going to make for people," she said.
"I've been in contact with people who haven't had access to it: this virus is life-threatening and it had been distressing for them to know that there was this very easy cure that was just out of reach."
Abbvie New Zealand general manager Andrew Tompkin expected the funding would have a positive impact on the lives of many Kiwis living with the virus.
"We have seen significant medical advancements in the development of hepatitis C medicines from the initial discovery of the virus in the 1980s, to the development and commercialisation of today's direct-acting antivirals, which provide an opportunity to eliminate the disease in New Zealand within a generation," he said.
"This new treatment option will mean more New Zealanders living with hepatitis C can be successfully treated."
Heal said the funding was the biggest step in wiping out hepatitis C in New Zealand – but she didn't see it as the end of the battle.
"We needed this to happen so we could take on all of the other barriers – especially reducing stigma and getting more community involvement."