FAIRFAX: Harvoni clearing kiwi musician of hepatitis C

Story source: Stuff.co.nz/Fairfax  

As Martin Phillipps drove across the North Island as part of The Chills’ reunion tour, he received a call to tell him that it would not be his last.

Martin, the driving force behind Kiwi band The Chills, had been living with hepatitis C since the 1990s. The virus attacked his liver for almost two decades, and in 2016, the 53-year-old musician was told he had barely a year to live.

The disease, coupled with heavy drinking, had taken its toll on his liver and was now threatening to end his life. “It got to the point where I was warned that even mouthwash with alcohol in it could kill me,” he said.

The Chills performed in Raglan this weekend, as part of their 2017 tour.

DOMINICO ZAPATA/FAIRFAX NZ

But as The Chills made their way to Napier for the latest leg of their 11-stop national tour, Martin received the extraordinary call from his doctor to say the medication he had been taking appeared to be working. Martin had been taking Harvoni, a new-generation treatment funded in New Zealand in October 2016 for people living with severe liver disease caused by hepatitis C. Harvoni has cure rates of 90+ per cent, few side-effects and shorter treatment duration than previous interferon treatments. 

Martin began using opioids and other drugs to self-medicate after his band was dropped from its US record label in the 1990s, he said.

Songs such as Heavenly Pop Hit and I Love My Leather Jacket had made the band household names in New Zealand – but it was as they sought stardom offshore that things went sour.

Martin contracted the virus after he and a friend had been getting high. The friend left one of their used syringes in a paper bag that Martin picked up. The needle pricked him and spread the virus, he said.

He had been living with severe depression, and that was only made worse by the virus. Dealing with hepatitis threw Martin into what he calls “the dark years”.

The virus made him constantly tired.

All the things Martin had enjoyed were put at arm’s length: performing was painful and spending time in nature took a toll. He remembered taking breaks from performances to vomit behind the stage.

“I have very low tolerance for anyone who says, ‘oh everyone gets the blues’. You just have no f…… clue what it’s like, that dark space is not the normal blues,” he said.

Martin said he contemplated suicide last year when he was unable to get the help he needed.

There was a lot of wasted time so it was easier for me to just put on a movie, sit around, and drink whisky,” he said.

Martin contracted hepatitis C in the 90s after his band was dropped from its US record label.

In 2000, Martin received an early treatment for the disease. Back then they used a year-long course of Interferon. It was “more like chemotherapy, it just blasts everything and you feel really sick for a year,” he recalled. Interferon had only a 30 per cent cure rate.

Auckland University professor and Hepatitis Foundation Trustee Ed Gane pioneered drug trials to help eradicate hepatitis C, and is credited with making treatments available to thousands of Kiwi sufferers.

Professor Gane said pills such as Harvoni were huge improvements on the inaccurate and painful treatments of the early 2000s.

From left: The Chills front man Martin Phillipps in Raglan with bandmates James Dickson, Todd Knudson and Oli Wilson.

From left: The Chills frontman Martin Phillipps in Raglan with bandmates James Dickson, Todd Knudson and Oli Wilson. PHOTO: DOMINICO ZAPATA/FAIRFAX NZ

New medications were so effective they could rid New Zealand of hepatitis C, Professor Gane said. Side effects from the pills were minimal and they could be prescribed by GPs.

The Government’s medicine buying agency, PHARMAC, started purchasing DAAs (Direct-Acting-Antivirals) that can cure hepatitis C in July 2016. To Martin’s surprise, he was eligible for Harvoni.

He wasn’t expecting any help. With his history of drug and alcohol abuse, “I thought maybe I’d used up my fair share”.

Pharmac director of operations Sarah Fitt said it was “one of the most expensive oral medicines” purchased by the agency.

It costs $1000 per pill, and patients must take one almost every day for 12 weeks, Sarah said. The total cost of the treatment was about $73,000 per patient.

The treatment had a 95 to 97 per cent success rate, she said.

Without Pharmac’s help, Martin said the drug would have been too expensive and he’s called on the agency to help fund more hepatitis C medications.

“It’s still more expensive to treat a person in hospital who has got hepatitis C than it is to get these drugs,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of people out there who are going to need an estimated $100,000 of treatment each.”

Cheaper drugs than Harvoni were in the process of entering the New Zealand market, a Pharmac spokesperson said.

Despite Harvoni’s cure rate, Martin remained cautious about its effect on his life.

“I’ve got cirrhosis of the liver,” he said. “Even if I’m cured, they can’t get rid of that, that’s damaged untoward. What it can do is, my liver won’t have to fight the hepatitis C virus. So what they’re saying is, as opposed to being dead this year, I will get more years. No one quite knows.”

Martin was cautious about using the word “cure” – at least yet.

“I’ve been at this point before a few years back and it came back again. You know it’s looking pretty good, but it’s not quite time for celebrating,” he said.

He would not be confident the virus was gone until further tests in a few months.

“There’s not much I can do – until it’s happened – but of course, eating healthily and not drinking,” he said. “That sort of stuff I have to do for the rest of my life, it’s part of the deal.”

But despite Martin’s refusal to say his hepatitis C was gone, the good news has allowed him to start planning ahead. The band is planning a new album next year. And Martin said he was finally getting his “driving optimism” back that had seeped away in the 90s.

With new energy, and even an extra decade, promised to Martin, he is focusing on getting The Chills back to where they were. Martin said the virus took years away from him, “there was an awful lot of mental confusion”, and relationships suffered. He said he simply couldn’t maintain any.

“I’m just trying to achieve something in the way of stability,” Martin said.

On Saturday night, Martin Phillipps fronted the band’s final scheduled stop in their national tour at the King’s Arms in Auckland, where he told 500 fans at the sold-out venue that as of now he was “free of hepatitis C”.

He announced one more surprise stop: a hometown show back at the Captain Cook Hotel in Dunedin, where it all began in 1980.

Read the original story here. 

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