As World Hepatitis Day approaches on July 28, a number of Northlanders shared their story about the miraculous results Viekira Pak has achieved in curing them
For 20 years, Susan didn’t realise she was living with the life-threatening virus Hepatitis C, which she suspects she contracted during childbirth.
And after carrying the disease for around 40 years, the Bay of Islands resident was desperate to be rid of it. So, when the chance arose to undergo a free breakthrough treatment two years ago, she leapt at it.
“I didn’t know I had Hepatitis C until my 40s,” says Susan, 64. “I contracted it in my late teens or early 20s.”
She believes she contracted the virus when she had her son. “I haemorrhaged when I had him and had to have a blood transfusion and the blood hadn’t been tested for Hep C.”
Susan was successfully tested for eligibility to undertake Viekira Pak – a combination of four antiviral medicines which PHARMAC began publicly funding from July 2016. Many of the Hepatitis C carriers who have used the 12 week course of Viekira tablets, suitable for those with genotype 1 or 4, have found it 95 percent plus effective. The next iteration of Viekira, to be released shortly, is expected to be 99 percent effective as a cure.
Up until recently, Kiwis with Hepatitis C only had the treatment option of Interferon and Ribavarin. These drugs offered a low chance of successful cure and came with painful side-effects. But today the virus is curable, treatment is free, side effects are limited to itchy skin and dermatitis, and getting treated with Viekira contributes to worldwide eradication.
However, of the 50,000 New Zealanders estimated to be carrying the liver-damaging blood-borne virus, only half of them are diagnosed.
In Northland, there are 500 people diagnosed with Hepatitis C so there are probably 500 people unaware they have it. As World Hepatitis Day approaches on July 28, potential carriers are being encouraged to get tested and treated before it potentially leads to liver cancer.
Symptoms include fatigue, joint pains, loss of appetite, nausea, mood swings and, for every 100 people infected with Hepatitis C, 80 will develop chronic infection, 25 will develop cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver) and three-five people will die of liver cancer. The liver is the largest organ inside the body and performs over 500 functions.
Those who may carry Hepatitis C but aren’t yet aware treatment is available are likely to be aged between 45-70. The risk group includes those who:
Shame around the origins of infection can lead many people to minimise or deny the seriousness of Hepatitis C but Susan learned the benefits of stopping Hepatitis before it leads to liver cancer or cirrhosis.
“I did the original Inteferon and Ribavarin treatment, which took a year and nearly killed me. I was kind of desperate to get rid of it. I didn’t like what it could be doing to me.”
Susan was one of the first patients to undergo the new treatment in Northland and will now be recommending it to others.
“I know of one girl who’s in denial. She knows she’s got Hep C and doesn’t want to do anything about it. She believes it doesn’t affect you but I’m concerned about what will happen to her down the track. I’m looking forward to telling her about me and what I went through. If you don’t do anything about it, your liver goes bang and won’t be happy any more. Do something and you’ll extend your lifetime 10 years.
Another Northland patient, Clive, reports that he has had an excellent result from Viekira Pak.
“I’m 100 percent cured. I’m as happy as a pig in the proverbial.
“I’d had Hep C for quite a while and put on a huge amount of weight but today, I’m walking laps of the park and town. I couldn’t have done that 12 months ago. I have more energy and I seem to be more active. With the liver problem, you lose energy and feel dull, which leads to weight gain. As a result of that, I got depressed and stayed at home.”
Clive says he wasn’t aware he had Hepatitis C until recently and is unable to pinpoint how he contracted it. “I could have had it for 30 years. I only got diagnosed two years ago when I came back from Australia. There were two incidents – I stood on a syringe on the beach. Then in New Zealand, I met a lady at the casino and had unprotected sex. But having said that, I was a heroin addict in my late 20s and I’ve got tattoos all over me.”
It was Clive’s GP in New Zealand who made him aware of Viekira Pak.
“I’m really grateful to the New Zealand government for making it available.”
Northland DHB’s haematologists and Hepatitis nurse specialists are contributing towards eradicating the disease by the year 2030 along with World Health Organization goals and say those who have taken the course of Viekira Pak have ‘had a big emotional burden lifted’.
(Names have been changed)