28 October 2022

ACT takes step towards wiping out hepatitis C with new testing clinic

| James Coleman
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Point-of-care testing clinic

The point-of-care testing (POCT) clinic is the result of a $457,418 grant by the ACT Government. Photo: James Coleman.

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.

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“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.”

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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 taking a seat inside the testing room. Photo: James Coleman.

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.”

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A person in the world dies from Hep C every 30 seconds. Hep C and its spread into the broader community is dire. The cost to our health system is astronomical. The concentration of Hep C is contained mostly to our supposedly human rights compliant prison the Alexander Maconochie Centre. This is through drug use and tattooing. Prisoners will continue to share needles and take drugs with Hep C cases continuing to rise and costing our health system. Despite the rhetoric from Labor and the Greens over the years, they remain weak and impotent on drug law reform. Drug use occurs in all prisons in the world and no amount of regulations will stop its entry and use. We have needle and syringe programs and drug injecting rooms operating throughout Australia which have been identified as reducing blood borne infections such as HIV and Hep C. The nurses and doctors at these facilities provide health advice to users. However, the ACT government buckled to the unions when attempting to implement such reforms. We have an overwhelming number of doctors and health authorities supporting drug reform. We have a duty of care to our prisoners and their families. They are a part of our community and deserve our care and respect as well. As a community it is important to treat those who carry this virus including prisoners as well as preventing the spread of the disease. It makes sense!

As they say in the classics “You don’t need a long neck to be a goose”.

When you get a needle stick injury and have to wait months for a result to see if you have Hepatitis, HIV, etc, because a putrid junkie hid a syringe on a park bench and then gone through the stress with your family waiting for the results (whilst not being able to be physical with your spouse) only then can you get on your soapbox and do ruin your garbage.

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