World Hepatitis Day: COVID-19's impact on hepatitis elimination

Monday, 27 July, 2020

World Hepatitis Day: COVID-19's impact on hepatitis elimination

This World Hepatitis Day — Tuesday, 28 July 2020 — Australia’s leading drug and infectious disease organisations will gather in the virtual world to re-engage on the elimination of hepatitis C.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the global goal of eliminating hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030. Australia is on track to become one of the first countries to achieve this; 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 has put an increased risk on new hepatitis transmission, access to treatment and the 2030 elimination goals.

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.

Hepatitis Australia CEO 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.”

AIVL CEO 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,” Walker said.

“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% 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 the prevalence of active hepatitis C infection in people who inject drugs, showing a decline from 51% to 18% 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,” Professor Dore said.

“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 an NDARC study of 702 people who used drugs during COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown, it was found only 24% were able to avoid sharing drug injecting equipment.

Director of NDARC at UNSW Sydney Professor Michael Farrell 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

The online event will be facilitated by health reporter Dr Norman Swan, bringing 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.

What: Dual pandemics — what will COVID-19 mean for hepatitis C elimination?

When: Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Time: 12.30–2.30 pm

Web: Book here.

Image credit: © Vodolazskyi

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