Concern over Wollongong hep C rates

Wollongong has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C in Australia according to a nationwide survey.

About 5000 people throughout the Illawarra are living with chronic hepatitis C, with public health units notified of 175 new cases in the region last year.

And that's just the cases that present. The survey of Australians aged 18-39 years, conducted by Galaxy Research, revealed that more than three-quarters had never been tested for the virus.

Two-thirds of those surveyed did not consider themselves at "any risk" of contracting the deadly infection, while the majority were unaware of the link between hepatitis C and potentially fatal liver problems.

Hepatitis NSW chief executive Stuart Loveday said the results of the survey were a concern considering that one out of every 100 Australians had hepatitis C.

"In Australia more than 226,000 people are living with chronic, or ongoing, hepatitis C infection.

"It's a blood-borne virus that is primarily transmitted through unsafe injecting drug use, however it can also be contracted through unsterile tattooing and body piercing - that's a concern given the increasing popularity of these practices," he said.

"And it's a real concern that this survey shows that most Australians do not understand the risk factors."

Mr Loveday was not surprised that the survey had found there was a high prevalence of hepatitis C cases in the Illawarra.

"It is one of the state's 'hotspots' for the health condition and the number of cases is a serious health concern," he said.

"However what is welcome is that the number of new notifications in the Illawarra in 2012 showed a small decline on the previous year's figure.

"So the number of new notifications in the Illawarra is now on par with the state average."

Mr Loveday said the survey also found that many young Australians were unaware of the long-term health complications associated with hepatitis C.

"It causes inflammation of the liver, which in the long term can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure or liver cancer," he said.

"However the problem is that there's no early warning signs - the three main symptoms of extreme fatigue, pain in the liver region and nausea may take 10 to 15 years to show up."

The survey also revealed a lack of understanding of treatment options, with only 14 per cent aware that the disease could be cured.

"Treatment is improving all the time - there's been a huge leap forward in 2013, which has seen the first treatment advances in 10 years," Mr Loveday said. "The chance of a cure is now around 75 per cent."

A new awareness campaign See The Real Thing aims to convince people to get tested, or seek treatment if they have the condition.

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