A simple test can beat 'the silent epidemic'


27 July 2021


Known as “the silent epidemic”, hepatitis C infects around 1000 people in New Zealand each year, with about 200 dying from the virus.


Whanganui District Health Board is looking to do something about those grim statistics, marking World Hepatitis Day on Wednesday 28 July with a pop-up clinic at Whanganui Hospital.


An estimated 45,000 New Zealanders are living with hepatitis C. However, due to symptoms often not appearing for many years, half of them may be unaware they have it – which is why it is often called “the silent epidemic”.

Madelein Wetzels at the hepatitis C stand at Whanganui Hospital


It is a viral infection caused when infected blood enters the blood stream and it causes liver cancer and liver failure.


Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield describes it as “a major public health threat in New Zealand … the leading cause of liver transplantation and the second leading cause of liver cancer”.


At Whanganui Hospital, clinical nurse specialist Madelein Wetzels has set up an information stand at the main entrance and on Wednesday she will be conducting hepatitis C blood tests there.


With a simple finger-prick test, she can tell whether someone has the virus in 10 minutes, and she is urging those at risk to get tested. 


Those at risk people include people who have ever injected drugs, received a tattoo or body piercing using un-sterile equipment, received medical treatment in a high-risk country, had a blood transfusion before 1992, been in prison, and been born to a mother with hepatitis C.


“You may not have any symptoms and can live with hepatitis C for many years undetected until the liver is significantly damaged,” says Madelein. “It is now time to find those people who don’t know they may be infected.


“There often is a lot of stigma around hepatitis C because it has been linked to intravenous drug use and many people with it find it difficult to tell others that they carry it. Now is the time to start the conversation as we can now treat this disease successfully.”


Highly effective treatment means that up to 98 per cent of people with the virus can be cured, but to achieve elimination everyone with the virus needs to be diagnosed.


“With an early diagnosis and new treatment, we can prevent hepatitis C related illness and death. This disease can now be eliminated, but we need people to get tested.”


As well as Wednesday’s pop-up testing clinic – which runs from 9am to 4.30pm -- Madelein says people can talk to their GP about a test, or chat with the nurse about hepatitis C at the Needle Exchange in Churton Street.


The Needle Exchange is open from 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday, and Saturdays from 11am to 3pm, and the nurse is there on Thursday 29 July from 1pm to 4pm and then on alternate Thursdays.


“You can get a quick test there to see if you are positive and discuss the results and plan for treatment. If negative, you have the peace of mind to know you are clear.”


World Hepatitis Day will also see the launch of a National Action Plan which focuses on awareness raising, prevention, testing and treatment of hepatitis C.