Hepatitis epidemic must be tackled to stop liver cancer cases doubling

THE number of new cases of liver cancer will soar in Australia over the next decade unless urgent action is taken to diagnose and treat an epidemic of viral hepatitis, experts warn.

A physician with the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service, Benjamin Cowie, said liver cancer cases were expected to double to about 2500 a year if more was not done to tackle the underlying causes. Hepatitis B and C were the primary causes of liver cancer, with hepatitis B the most significant single cause of cancer worldwide, after tobacco, Dr Cowie said.

Hepatitis B affected about 200,000 Australians, most of them Aboriginal or born overseas in countries where there was an epidemic. Hepatitis C affected about 230,000 Australians and was most commonly caused by drug users sharing needles.

Dr Cowie is among a group of experts to use a viral hepatitis conference in New Zealand today to urge governments and health professionals to set new targets for the number of people receiving treatment.

''A substantial scaling up of resources and efforts is needed to stop these epidemics in their tracks,'' the experts said.

''Otherwise liver cancer will continue to be among the fastest increasing causes of cancer death in Australia and New Zealand.'' Targets include ensuring that at least 80 per cent of people with hepatitis B or C are diagnosed and that 5 per cent of people with hepatitis C and 10 per cent of those with hepatitis B receive antiviral treatment every year.

It is estimated that one in three people with hepatitis B, and one in four with hepatitis C, are undiagnosed. They may not have symptoms of the disease but without treatment their condition can progress to liver cancer or liver failure.

Only 2 per cent of Australians who have hepatitis C and 3 per cent with hepatitis B receive medical treatment. Dr Cowie said part of the problem was long waiting lists.

''If you are living with hepatitis B and have undiagnosed cirrhosis and wait for a year to be seen, you have a 2 to 3 per cent chance of getting liver cancer. From a human rights perspective, I think that is unacceptable in rich societies like Australia and New Zealand.''

Experts said new drugs to treat hepatitis C offered improved efficacy and had less toxicity.

''We need to be exploring not just sending people to hospital and waiting for liver clinics but getting these treatments into the community, and that means supporting general practitioners and nurses to take a greater role,'' Dr Cowie said before today's eighth Australasian Viral Hepatitis Conference 2012 .

More than 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders are diagnosed with hepatitis C each year and 7000 with hepatitis B.

The ''Auckland statement'' calls for new hepatitis C infections to be halved by 2016, including by introducing needle and syringe programs in prisons, where the transmission rate for infection is of concern.

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