Deaths from hepatitis B-related liver cancer will triple (from 2008 figures) within the next 5 years without significant efforts around prevention, according to Chris Enright from the Cancer Prevention Centre at Cancer Council Victoria.
"There are currently around 50,000 Victorians living with chronic hepatitis B, but only around 3% of are receiving treatment for it, evidence suggests that this should be at least 15%. There is a wave of chronic illness building, we need to act now," said Ms Enright.
In 2008, 450 Australians were estimated to have died of hepatitis B related cancer – this is predicted to increase to 1,550 by 2017.
"The real tragedy is that the risk of hepatitis B-related liver cancer can be greatly reduced if people are diagnosed early and then are appropriately monitored and treated. The comparatively low costs of managing hepatitis B appropriately now will be far exceeded by the burden of a boom in liver cancer on our healthcare system in coming years."
More than a third of those living with hepatitis B have not been diagnosed and are not aware they have contracted it. The majority of those who have the virus have done so since birth, so vaccination has no effect. Ms Enright said that World Hepatitis Day (28 July) was a good time for people who are likely to be at high risk to remind people to talk to their GP about getting tested.
"There are some groups more at risk of hepatitis b related liver cancer, and it's vital that they talk to their GP and get tested," said Ms Enright.
An excellent three-year national strategy to manage hepatitis B was launched in 2010. Ms Enright said it is now time to put that strategy into action.
"Funding key areas such as research, appropriate clinical treatment and awareness campaigns to encourage those at risk of hepatitis B-related liver cancer are needed now if we are to reduce the number of liver cancer deaths in the community.
"Unless action is taken quickly liver cancer will continue to have the fastest increasing mortality of any cancer in Victoria.
"Here's a cancer that's more preventable than most, yet it receives very little attention and almost no funding," she said.