A pilot scheme targeting chronic hepatitis C in the Bay of Plenty is expected to significantly improve health outcomes and access to care for people living with this disease.
The programme was launched by Hepatitis Foundation New Zealand in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Bay of Plenty DHB.
Chronic hepatitis C is the main cause of liver transplantation in New Zealand.
John Hornell, chief executive of the Hepatitis Foundation, said the disease has been ignored for too long.
"Now is the time to confront this disease, to tackle it head on and to win the fight," he said.
Hepatitis C recognised by the World Health Organisation as a global health issue and in New Zealand there are approximately 50,000 people living with chronic hepatitis C. It is believed more than 75 per cent of these people are unaware they have the disease as many don't experience signs or symptoms for many decades after infection.
Hepatitis C project manager Kelly Barclay said the pilot aimed to increase the number of people diagnosed and treated.
"It will involve a hepatitis nurse delivering specialist care in the community. The goal is to provide those with hepatitis C with better access to testing, care and support where they live. This will help them make lifestyle changes to slow the progression of the disease before they consider treatment," she said.
The Hepatitis Foundation will work closely with GPs, specialists and other health providers to enrol those with hepatitis C onto a Community Assessment and Support Programme.
A community hepatitis C nurse will provide enrolled patients with an initial FibroScan assessment (a non-invasive new ultrasound technique to assess the level of liver disease), blood tests, on-going support and education, and will liaise with health providers to centrally manage patients' needs. In the majority of cases, Fibroscan takes away the need for liver biopsy altogether.
Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive Phil Cammish said the innovative approach of the pilot should make a big difference to the lives of people with hepatitis C.
"This service will bring together all parts of the health service to address this health need."
Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. The virus causes inflammation of the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer if left undiagnosed. Current treatment provides 45 to 80 per cent chance of cure (depending on the disease strain).