Amid growing concerns regarding the incidence of Hepatitis C among Indigenous communities, WA Health has launched a new campaign urging Aboriginal people to “never share needles.”
The rate of Hepatitis C infections in the West Australian Aboriginal population is currently 22-times higher than the rest of the population.
While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people constitute only 2.4 per cent of the Australian population, they comprise 8.3 per cent of those living with Hepatitis C.
In a bid to tackle the prevalence of the blood borne virus in vulnerable communities, WA Health has launched a 10-week public health awareness campaign designed to educate the public about the risk factors, diagnosis and treatment options for those living with Hepatitis C.
The campaign was developed in consultation with Aboriginal health workers and Aboriginal leaders from both regional and metropolitan areas of WA.
Aboriginal people are being urged to “look after their blood” and to “never share needles.”
According to WA Health’s communicable disease control director, Dr Paul Armstrong, Hepatitis C often remains undiagnosed due to the fact that the blood borne virus is typically asymptomatic.
Dr Paul Armstrong encourages any individual who is considered at risk of contracting the virus to get tested, regardless of whether they are experiencing any visible symptoms.
Early diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis C is imperative for mitigating the severity of the infection.
If left untreated, chronic Hepatitis C infection can lead to cirrhosis (liver tissue scarring and thickening), liver failure and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is most commonly transmitted through blood-to-blood contact via the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes.
Unsafe injecting practices account for more than 90 per cent of new Hepatitis C infections in Australia.
“New diagnoses of hepatitis C have been gradually increasing in the Aboriginal population across Australia over the past five years, most commonly in 20 – 49 year olds,” said Dr Paul Armstrong.
“The proportion of newly diagnosed HIV infections in Australia attributed to injecting drug use was much higher in Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal people –16 per cent compared to 3 per cent respectively.”
This can be attributed largely to the lack of awareness and understanding among Aboriginal people, of the health risks associated with the sharing of drug injecting equipment.
Furthermore, Aboriginal people are disproportionately over-represented in the prison system, an environment in which there are very high rates of Hepatitis C.
In 2014, the Australian government released the Fourth National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Blood-borne Viruses and Sexually Transmissible Infections Strategy 2014-2017 which aims to promote safer injecting practices, increased testing among people at risk of HCV infection, and better access to treatment for Aboriginal people living with hepatitis C.
New direct-acting antiviral treatments proven to provide a cure for 95 per cent of those living with chronic hepatitis C, are now available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
The affordability and accessibility of these new direct-acting treatments will prove particularly beneficial for Aboriginal people who may have previously neglected their health for economic reasons.
For more information on the WA campaign, head to http://www.couldihaveit.com.au/bbv