Revolutionary new project helping to end Hepatitis C

Clinical nurse consultant Kristen McKee with pathology collector Maria Tongol.

A NSW-first project run by Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) is significantly increasing diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis C by taking free testing into the community.

The ‘Focus Project’ is targeting key communities by taking the mobile testing van to methadone-dispensing pharmacies.

Methadone is a prescription medication used to help treat opioid addiction including heroin use. Hepatitis C is a virus spread through blood-to-blood contact (such as through sharing injecting equipment or unsterile tattoo equipment) that causes inflammation of the liver and is a major cause of liver cancer.

Hepatology clinical nurse consultant Kristen McKee started the targeted outreach program and said the results so far have been exceptional.

“In the first six pharmacy visits we conducted 220 blood tests with a 12-15 per cent prevalence of hepatitis C. That’s much higher than we normally see with any other testing.

“Most of these people had no idea, or if they had an inkling, probably wouldn’t have got tested until they were very ill. They’re grateful for the accessible service,” Kristen said.

The focused outreach project is the brainchild of Kristen and made possible through partnership with pharmacists, Hepatitis NSW and NSW Health Pathology.

The mobile van allows for on-the-spot testing for hepatitis C from a fingertip prick, with results available within the hour. Those who test positive are informed in person or via a phone call, and can have a full liver scan in the van and get a prescription for treatment – meaning most never need to go to hospital.

New hepatitis C treatments have a greater than 95% cure rate and mean taking just one tablet daily for 8-12 weeks with no or minimal side effects.

Blood samples are also collected for comprehensive testing for other conditions including hepatitis B, HIV and syphilis.

The new project is a collaboration between WSLHD, the Westmead Institute for Medical Research’s Storr Liver Centre and relevant pharmacies, with assistance from NSW Health Pathology and Hepatitis NSW.

Hepatitis NSW support worker Will Smith

Health promotion officer Anju Devkota compiled the initial data of 42 pharmacies in WSLHD providing methadone, and hepatology staff reached out to pharmacists to see if any were willing to partner.

Pharmacist Ahmad Tefaili from Whalan Compounding Pharmacy said he was happy to recommend the mobile testing it to his clients.

“I’m definitely supportive of anything that helps the local community,” Ahmad said.

Hepatitis NSW peer support workers, including 66-year-old Wil Smith, help explain the purpose of the van to anyone nearby and encourage them to get screened.

“I have lived experience of hepatitis C. In 2014 I was quite ill but my life has turned around since then,” Wil said.

“I like helping people. I like the end result of getting people on treatment as their life is better as a result.

“A lot of people associate hepatitis C with intravenous drug use, but the reality is you could get it from any blood-to-blood contact; even a tattoo or a cosmetic procedure. It doesn’t matter how you catch it, these days you can do something about it.”

NSW Health invests more than $4.5 million annually toward the aim of eradicating hepatitis C in NSW by 2030.

To find out more about hepatitis C and who is at risk of the infection, visit: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/hepatitis_c.aspx

For further information on the mobile service and other ways to access testing or treatment in western Sydney, visit: liverwellnessprogram.com.