“You’re dead, man”: 170,000 Australians living with dangerous disease
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“You’re dead, man”: 170,000 Australians living with dangerous disease

Allan Dumbleton’s doctor was surprised to see him walking into his office.

In his hands were the sales executive’s test results, and they revealed that Mr Dumbleton's liver was in trouble.

An established hepatitis C infection and a week of partying with clients during the Melbourne Cup carnival had pushed his ALT levels, a measure of liver damage, to about 40 times higher than normal.

Left untreated, hepatitis C does kill. Despite recent and rapid advances in effective cures, it is estimated about 170,000 Australians still have hepatitis C, and are living at risk of its potentially deadly complications.

Mr Dumbleton's doctor told him that if his ALT levels were to increase much more, “you’re dead, man”.

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“I’m surprised you walked in the door,” he said.

Allan Dumbleton suffered terribly from hepatitis C, and the side-effects of treatment.

Allan Dumbleton suffered terribly from hepatitis C, and the side-effects of treatment.Credit:Justin McManus

Hepatitis C can spend decades lingering in the body without any symptoms, before emerging with a bang in the form of liver cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

Some people aren’t aware they have it. Others have been diagnosed but haven’t sought a cure.

“We have had some cases where people have known they have had hepatitis C and not presented for treatment until they’ve actually had liver cancer,” said Hepatitis Australia chief executive Helen Tyrrell.

“It’s just so tragic.”

Mr Dumbleton suspects he got hepatitis C when he was injected with recreational drugs in his early 20s, or when he was tattooed, which meant he probably had it for close to two decades without realising.

Dr Annie Balcomb, a GP in the NSW town of Orange, said Baby Boomers who had taken drugs for a short period in the 1960s could have hepatitis C, too, but not know it.

Injecting drugs is the leading cause of hepatitis C in Australia. Other risk factors include being born overseas, receiving a blood transfusion before the 1990s and spending time in prison.

It is estimated about 800 Australians die of the illness each year. But it’s a statistic that is becoming increasingly hard to fathom given a new wave of treatments.

Since early 2016, antiviral pills have been available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme which offer a cure rate of about 90 per cent after just a few months. They can be prescribed by GPs.

They replaced previous treatments, which had a lower success rate, and often came with brutal side-effects.

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These included interferon, which Dr Balcomb described as like being on chemotherapy.

Mr Dumbleton said that before he took interferon alpha he had to sign a statutory declaration to explain that he understood it could likely cause depression, which it did.

“Those initial drugs, I don’t know how they were allowed to be given to human beings,” he said. “I wasn’t a depression-type person at all, and now I suffer fairly badly with it.”

It wasn’t until Mr Dumbleton was given new antiviral medications (ribavirin, sofosbuvir and daclatasvir) that the 56-year-old was finally cured of hepatitis C late last year, 18 years after his initial diagnosis.

As one of the survivors of the original treatments, he cannot understand why today’s hepatitis C sufferers would not take advantage of the vastly improved medications.

“C’mon get out there and look after yourself,” he said.

It’s a message echoed by Hepatitis Australia, which has issued an urgent appeal for more people to come forward for treatment.

They say while 60,000 people have been cured of hepatitis C since 2016, treatment uptake has fallen by 60 per cent since late 2016.

“The federal government was rightly lauded for its historic commitment to eliminate hepatitis C in Australia by 2030, but we need people with the virus to come forward to protect themselves from the serious consequences of hepatitis C,” Ms Tyrrell said.

For more information call the Hepatitis Australia hotline on 1800 437 222.