The National Hepatitis C Action Plan for Aotearoa New Zealand was launched in Hamilton on Wednesday outlining how New Zealand will eliminate hepatitis C (hep C) by 2030.
New Zealand is one of 194 countries to sign a commitment to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to eliminate the disease.
Held at Anglesea Pharmacy, the official launch corresponded with World Hepatitis Day. This year's theme for the global day is Hep Can't Wait, pushing the message that with a person dying every 30 seconds with a hepatitis-related illness around the world, people living with it can't wait to get tested and receive lifesaving treatment.
Hep C is a blood-borne virus that causes liver inflammation and can lead to liver cancer if left untreated. Around 1000 people contract it, and 200 people die from it every year in New Zealand. Around 45,000 Kiwis are living with the virus, and half of them may be unaware they have it because symptoms do not show for years, or even decades.
Risk factors for hep C include drug use with needles, amateur tattoos, time in prison, receiving medical treatment in a high-risk country, a blood transfusion before 1992, or having been born to a mother with hep C.
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, whose background in infectious diseases is closely related to the cause, and Professor Ed Gane, chairman of the working group behind the action plan and deputy Director of the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit spoke at the launch in Hamilton.
Dr Verrall says: "[The Action Plan] will help more people get on with leading healthy lives, avoiding deaths, and the need for costly liver transplants. Hepatitis Can't Wait is a particularly relevant theme in New Zealand."
"It reminds us that people who are unaware they're living with viral hepatitis cannot wait for testing, people affected by hepatitis cannot wait for stigma and discrimination to end, and decision makers cannot wait, we must act now to make hepatitis elimination a reality."
The activities outlined in the Action Plan are grouped into five focus areas: awareness and understanding, prevention and harm reduction, testing and screening, surveillance and monitoring, as well as integration and access to care.
Director-General of Health and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who was also present at the launch, said that the nation's response to Covid-19 shows that elimination is possible for hep C in New Zealand.
"We've shown in the case of a new virus, in the situation of the global pandemic, that elimination is possible and not just that it's possible, but that it's the right way to go."
Hepatitis C project manager at HealthShare Ltd, Jo de Lisle, says the action plan will be the "catalyst for transformational change" for many Kiwis living with hep C.
"[It] is a gamechanger. We will have more capability to bring hep C testing and treatment services straight to communities through offering pop-up and mobile clinics. This will lead to thousands of people feeling a lot better, with many not realising the symptoms they were facing were because of hep C."
"Also, the good news with hep C is that from the initial diagnosis, hep C patients can receive highly effective and fully funded treatment, where most people will be diagnosed and cured within nine weeks."
The One-Stop-Shop Hepatitis C Clinic at the launch offered be free point-of-care tests, blood tests and liver scans, so those at risk had the chance to fit everything into one visit, without having to follow up elsewhere.
Te Manawa Taki's hepatitis C community nurse Nancy Carey held the clinic on Wednesday and says they have a "no questions asked" policy, to help reduce the stigma that surrounds the virus.
"It doesn't matter how you get hep C, what matters is how you cure it."