Australia is on track to become one of the first countries to eliminate hepatitis C, which is part of the global goal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and related social isolation has impacted drug use, drug and hepatitis C treatment services, and the health of people who use drugs. This puts an increased risk on new hepatitis transmission, access to treatment, and the elimination goals for 2030.
The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), Hepatitis Australia, the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol & other Drugs (APSAD), the Kirby Institute and National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW Sydney, have partnered to address what COVID-19 will mean for hepatitis C elimination in Australia.
CEO of Hepatitis Australia, Carrie Fowlie said, “Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus and people who inject drugs are a crucial priority population.”
“Not only is there a risk that the WHO 2030 elimination goal could be set back, but more immediate negative impacts could be experienced by people at risk of contracting hepatitis or seeking hepatitis treatment in Australia due to current and future social, health, and policy changes.”
CEO of AIVL, Melanie Walker said some of the new regulations and social requirements are impossible for people who use drugs to abide by.
“People who use drugs need to attend needle and syringe programs (NSPs) and be able to have ongoing access to the full range of harm reduction, pharmacotherapy and other drug and hepatitis treatments,” said Ms Walker.
“If people who use drugs cannot access these services, we could see an increase in sharing of injecting equipment, which could lead to increased cases of hepatitis C and compound the negative health outcomes already experienced by this group.”
In the newly released National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019, illicit drug use was responsible for 75 percent of Australia’s acute hepatitis C burden of disease.
Professor Greg Dore, Head of Viral Hepatitis Clinical Research Program at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney, said there had been encouraging recent data from the Australian Needle Syringe Program Survey on prevalence of active hepatitis C infection in people who inject drugs which had declined from 51 percent to 18 percent between 2015 and 2019.
“However, despite these declines in number of people with hepatitis C, continued declines in numbers being treated through 2019 and into 2020 compromises the achievement of WHO elimination goals,” said Professor Dore.
“More strategies are needed to raise awareness of the need for testing and availability of new hepatitis C treatments to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030.”
In a new NDARC study of 702 people who used drugs during COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown, it was found only 24 percent were able to avoid sharing drug injecting equipment.
Professor Michael Farrell, Director of NDARC, UNSW Sydney, said the research shows that people who use drugs want to limit their risk of contracting viral diseases like COVID-19 and hepatitis C, but this can be challenging due to a range of factors.
“We need to continue to find solutions that support people who use drugs to ensure hepatitis C elimination remains a priority.”
About the online event
Facilitated by health reporter Dr Norman Swan, this event brings together affected communities, doctors, scientists, health and community workers, researchers and the public to discuss the immense challenges COVID-19 brings to hepatitis C elimination and the health of people who use drugs, and to discuss strategies to ensure Australia stays on track to become one of the first countries in the world to eliminate hepatitis C.
Date: Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Time: 12:30pm – 2:30pm
Jude Byrne, National Project Coordinator, Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League
Sione Crawford, Chief Executive Officer, Harm Reduction Victoria
Greg Dore, Head, Viral Hepatitis Clinical Research Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney
Carrie Fowlie, Chief Executive Officer, Hepatitis Australia
Jules Kim, Chief Executive Officer, Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association
Andrew Lloyd, Head, Viral Immunology Systems Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney
Stuart Manoj-Margison, Director, BBV, STI and Torres Strait Health Policy Section, Australian Government Department of Health
Amy Peacock, Senior Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Melanie Walker, CEO, Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League
Michael Farrell, Director, The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), UNSW Sydney
Go here to view the media kit with supporting data and research.
- ANSPS Report
- ADAPT Study Bulletin
- EDRS Bulletin
- HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia: annual surveillance report 2018
- Introduction to AIVL and its Member Organisations
For reference: When reporting on drug and alcohol issues, we encourage the consultation of the Mindframe guidelines on ‘Communicating about alcohol and other drugs’, as well as the ‘Language Matters’ guide published by the NSW Users and AIDS Association.
People can access free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs by calling the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline - 1800 250 015.
About the organisations
The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL) is the Australian national peak organisation representing the state and territory peer-based drug user organisations and issues of national relevance for people with lived experience of drug use.
The Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol & other Drugs (APSAD) is the Asia Pacific's leading multidisciplinary organisation for professionals involved in the alcohol and other drug field.
Hepatitis Australia is the national peak body for community hepatitis organisation, represents the interests of 400,000 Australians impacted by viral hepatitis and coordinates World Hepatitis Day in Australia. Join the conversation by using #LetsTalkHep or visiting www.worldhepatitisday.org.au
The Kirby Institute is a leading global research institute dedicated to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) is a premier research institution delivering novel, high quality research on alcohol and other drug use.
The ASCEND (Advancing the health of people who use drug: hepatitis C and drug dependence) program grant was awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and is led by Greg Dore (Kirby Institute), in collaboration with Chief Investigators Andrew Lloyd (Kirby Institute), Michael Farrell (NDARC) and Louisa Degenhardt (NDARC). The overarching goal is to bring together disciplines of viral hepatitis and drug dependence research for mutual benefit.