A new testing centre in Turner promises to make the ACT the first jurisdiction in Australia to rid the population of hepatitis C once and for all.
The new point-of-care testing (POCT) facility on David Street will fast-track antiviral treatment by swapping the traditional testing method – with its lengthy wait times – for one that gives results within an hour.
It’s a joint venture between Hepatitis ACT and the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA), launched on Thursday 27 October, with help from the ACT Government.
“Hepatitis C prevalence has been declining in Australia since highly effective direct acting antiviral (DAA) treatments became widely available in 2016,” Hepatitis ACT executive director Sarah Ahmed said.
“However … increasing testing and treatment uptake is essential if we are to achieve the World Health Organization goal of eliminating hepatitis C as a major global public health threat by 2030.”
Hepatitis C (or hep C, for short) is a blood-borne virus that targets the liver, and can lead to reproductive health issues, liver cancer or cardiovascular and neurological complications without a course of DAA pills.
In Australia, it’s estimated over 115,000 people are living with chronic hep C. In the ACT, it’s more than 2000, and only 46 per cent of those are engaged in treatment.
CAHMA executive director Chris Gough said there were many reasons people didn’t get tested, from not even knowing they had it to complex trauma issues and lengthy wait times.
“We know we’re dealing with a community that is highly marginalised and has negative experiences accessing healthcare,” he said.
“Interventions that are easy and done by peers and trusted healthcare professionals are really important. Being able to deliver results on the spot within an hour while having fantastic conversations about treatment pathways is really important and will help in our efforts to make hep C a thing of the past.”
Conventional hep C testing consists of several blood tests, with days or weeks of waiting between them, to arrive at a diagnosis.
The POCT technology can test for an active case of hep C during one visit, using only a small drop of blood from a finger prick. That small blood sample is analysed on site with a result within an hour. If the result is positive, then in most cases, treatment can be started during that same visit or within a few days.
The machine is also portable and can be taken out into the community.
The ACT Government provided $457,418 to Hepatitis ACT’s ‘Reach, Teach, Treat, Thrive’ program, a large part of which includes the testing centre. This falls under the ACT Preventive Health Plan 2020 to 2025 and $1.3-million-worth of Healthy Canberra grants announced in February 2022.
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said sexually-transmissible infections and blood-borne viruses, including hep C, “contribute to a significant health and economic burden for the ACT”.
“We’re really lucky in Canberra to enjoy some of the world’s highest standards in health and wellbeing, but we cannot ignore the fact there are people in our community who don’t have that experience and live with preventable illness and disease,” she said.
The Healthy Canberra grants were given to recipients targeting risky behaviours, with a focus on sexually-transmissible infections and blood-borne viruses. Alongside Hepatitis ACT, these include Companion House ($103,921), Forcibly Displaced People Network ($213,855), Meridian ($369,270) and Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT ($249,700).
“It’s really important as a government and as a community, that we continue to support healthy lifestyles and behaviours across all stages of life,” Minister Stephen-Smith said.
“Our focus, wherever we can, is on keeping people healthy and out of hospital.”