Tens of thousands of New Zealanders living with hepatitis C could be saved from years of suffering and a premature death thanks to a free cure - but few know it's available.
Hepatitis C survivor Stephen Hassan was the first Kiwi to be cured with a groundbreaking wonder drug, known as Maviret, in April last year.
He is speaking out in a bid to save about 40,000 more New Zealanders who have the potentially deadly blood-borne virus.
"I want to stress the importance of people who are still abusing and addicted. They have just as much of a right to publicly funded healthcare and to beat this virus as anybody.
"If you have ever been at risk take the step to get tested for your own peace of mind," Hassan said.
People at risk of getting hepatitis C include those who have injected drugs, had a tattoo or body piercing using unsterile equipment, have had a mother born with the virus or have been born with a mother living with it.
The 40-year-old former drug addict went to get tested about 18 months ago, as a "general warrant of fitness check", and was shocked when his test results came back positive for hepatitis C.
"I was asymptomatic. I could have sat there with it doing damage for years so I'm lucky I found it when I did."
Six months after Hassan was diagnosed, Pharmac approved funding for Maviret which is expected to cure 99 per cent of people living with hepatitis C.
Its predecessor, Viekira Pak, cured 57 per cent of people infected with genotype 1 of the virus. Maviret also treats genotypes 2 to 6.
After taking one pill a day - with little to no side effects - for eight weeks Hassan was free of the virus and now lives a healthy life that he knows won't be cut short from hepatitis C.
"My wife was really concerned when she heard about the diagnosis and is really pleased it hasn't cut me down. I've only just started to come into my own in the last couple of years."
Last year alone, the drug cured about 3500 people from hepatitis C which can cause of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver transplants.
Top Auckland liver specialist Ed Gane - who helped develop the miracle cure in the United Kingdom - said there were still about 40,000 other New Zealanders who were expected to have the virus and could be cured.
Those numbers were based on prevalence rates in Australia.
"We have to start pushing the message that you need to get tested and get treated," Gane told the Herald.
"My American and Australia colleagues are very envious that we have one simple drug funded which is the best treatment. In Australia, there are five or six drugs that are funded and it's very difficult for the GP to decide which drug is best suited."
He said in the first 40 patients who tested the drug, all were cured.
Health Minister David Clark met with Hassan and Gane yesterday at Auckland City Hospital to help raise awareness about the free cure.
"What we have is Kiwis healing Kiwis. It is backed by the scientists, backed by Pharmac, backed by Government and it gets us on the road of eliminating hepatitis C," Clark said.
"My message overall is to go get tested. We have this extraordinary drug developed with a really significant role played here in New Zealand that can cure people completely."
Clark said the benefits of this cure for the wider health sector were huge.
"People will avoid and beat cancer, they will live full lives where otherwise they may have struggled and we are leading the world here."
Gane said the biggest problem in terms of accessing the drug is the lack of awareness.
"The other initiative we are working on is finding those people who have tested positive and make them aware that there is treatment available because some of these people are marginalised and can't access healthcare very easily."
Now, not only do GPs have access to the drug, a specialised clinic has been set up in Auckland and it's been given to people in prisons.
Gane said when Maviret was first funded in New Zealand 30 per cent of GPs accessed the drug, and now it's at 65 per cent.
"The goal is to save thousands of lives over the next 20 years."
About hepatitis C
• It's a blood-borne virus that affects 170 million people worldwide and is a leading cause of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver transplants.
• It can take decades before people start noticing symptoms such as fatigue and depression. By that stage, the liver may already be badly damaged.
Hepatitis C risk factors
You should ask your GP for a hepatitis C test if you have ever:
• Injected drugs.
• Had a tattoo or body piercing using unsterile equipment.
• Had a blood transfusion before 1992.
• Lived or received medical treatment in a high-risk country (Southeast Asia, China, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Eastern Europe).
• Been in prison.
• Been born to a mother living with hepatitis C.
Sourced by Ministry of Health.