Ireland will overshoot a target to eliminate hepatitis C by almost 20 years, costing money and lives, it has been claimed.
The Polaris Observatory, an international organisation that tracks the prevalence of hepatitis C, has said elimination of the virus as planned by 2030 is unachievable given current treatment rates and policy. It predicts that Ireland may not reach the goal of elimination until 2049.
Its estimate, which is based on mathematical modelling, was presented to a “summit” on the issue in Dublin’s Mansion House on Wednesday.
In 2016, Ireland identified the blood-borne disease as a public health priority and committed to meeting a World Health Organisation target to eliminate it by 2030. Since then, the cost of treating patients with new generation antivirals has tumbled, and success rates are well over 95 per cent.
More than 1,700 people who were infected with the virus through State-provided blood products in the 1970s and 1990s have been successfully treated since then. However, thousands more remain to be treated, many of whom are unaware they have the disease and most of whom are intravenous drug users.
The Hepatitis C Partnership, which organised the summit, said an estimated 20,000-30,000 people are infected with hepatitis C in Ireland. Between 70 and 85 per cent of those infected are people who inject drugs and one-in-three of those with the disease are homeless.
The partnership, which received funding for the event from Abbvie and Gilead, two companies that manufacture hepatitis C drugs, says Ireland needs to move away from a hospital-centred model of treatment to one that provides services in the community “to treat people where they are at”.
Hepatitis C is a debilitating disease that affects the liver, causing it to become inflamed and not work as effectively. People with the virus also experience many other serious physical and cognitive issues, such as immune disorders, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, depression as well as isolation and stigmatisation.
Minister of State at the Department of Health Catherine Byrne told the gathering the road to eliminating the disease "will not be easy but I'm confident we have the direction and the resources to achieve it".
Ms Byrne said the provision of supervising injection facilities would have to play a “huge part” in efforts to eliminate hepatitis C. She expressed disappointment at Dublin City Council’s recent decision to refuse planning permission for such a facility in the capital, describing it as a “huge setback”.
To reach the vulnerable populations most affected by the disease, testing and treatment services are being provided in a number of drug clinics in Dublin, the meeting heard. Of 176 patients identified as hepatitis C positive, 145 have been treated and only two failed to complete the 12-week course of treatment.