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Doorstop interview about the National Blood Cancers Taskforce

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt talking about the National Blood Cancers Taskforce and new medicine listings on the PBS from 1 September 2019.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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I’m joined this morning by Bill Petch, the CEO of the Leukaemia Foundation.

Today is the first of September, the first day of Spring, the day of new medicines listings and Father’s Day. So there are some very important health and medicine announcements which come with today’s date.

Significantly, the Leukaemia Foundation recently led a process which delivered a national report on blood cancers.

In response to that report, which identifies the fact that we have 12,000 Australians each year, every year, who are diagnosed with some form of blood cancer—leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma—and that this number is likely to significantly increase over the coming decades as Australians age, the Government will be establishing a National Blood Cancers Task Force.

That Task Force will in particular focus on early diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Bill will co-lead this with Professor John Seymour from the extraordinary Peter MacCallum Centre, and it will bring together over 20 of Australia’s leading clinicians, researchers and public health experts in the field of blood cancers.

We recently announced SPRYCEL, which on the first of August was added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, saving patients $51,000 a year.

And then only a few weeks ago, we announced the addition of CAR-T immunotherapy to the services that will be available for young Australians to deal with what would otherwise be a catastrophic and almost invariably fatal sentence of leukaemia after other treatments had failed.

This would cost half a million dollars and be beyond the reach of virtually every Australian family, but because of the work of the Leukaemia Foundation and our researchers we’re able to support patients such as eight-year-old Violet Uhi, who has been through CAR-T and is in complete remission as at this date.

So that is a very important step forward. There’s $150,000 which will come with the support for blood cancers, but this is the start of their work to create a national roadmap and action plan for blood cancer, and from that will flow more investment over the coming years.

Only three days ago we announced an extra $4.4 million for leukaemia research as part of a National Health and Medical Research Council grant.

So all of these things come together to the listing of new medicines, and today, on the first of September, I’m delighted to announce that three further medicines will be added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Opdivo, for head and neck cancer and other relevant cancers, will save patients $250,000 a year, and what that means is that this new immunotherapy will give them a real shot at life, a real shot at having the chance to recover or have an improved quality of life and an extended life.

Further, Botox for spasticity for lower limbs caused by stroke, will be added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. 2,800 patients will save almost $5,500 a year, but most importantly, will have better movement and better recovery from stroke.

And then, in addition, Bicillin will be made available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in a rare component for outbreaks, which means that it will be provided for free for Indigenous Australians who are suffering as part of a syphilis epidemic.

And so far approximately 2,800 patients have been identified and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to eradicate and to prevent this syphilis outbreak from having any impact on Indigenous Australians.

Linked to the new medicines, though, and perhaps the most important thing of all, and that is prevention of disease.

And I am delighted that the latest immunisation figures show that we have increased five-year-old childhood immunisation rates from 91.86 per cent when we came to Government to 94.85 per cent.

And so what that shows is that we are on the edge of achieving, for the first time ever, national herd immunity in our young children as they enter school. We’ll keep going and that’s why we will also be listing, following the advice of the experts, the flu vaccine for six-month to five-year-olds for the next flu season.

So the Australian Government will make free flu vaccines available under the National Immunisation Program for children aged between six months and five years old for the next flu season.

Bill, I just want to acknowledge you and your work, if you’d like to step forward and tell us about the work of the Leukaemia Foundation and the Blood Cancers Task Force.


Firstly I’d just like to acknowledge the Federal Government’s response to the Leukaemia Foundation’s State of the Nation report into blood cancer in this country.

This is the first time a report has been provided into the holistic impact of blood cancer, and what we know now is that that impact is much greater than we previously understood.

Right now we know that one person is diagnosed every 36 minutes in this country and one person will die every two hours from this disease. If we do nothing, within 15 years we will see one person diagnosed every 15 minutes and one person dying every hour.

So I really want to thank the Minister for his very swift action in establishing this National Task Force into Blood Cancer.

The purpose of this task force is for us to bring the Minister some very measurable outcomes and ideas around how we can improve survivability across all blood cancers, whether that’s leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma.

What we know is that if we improve access to new diagnostics like genomic screening, and if we improve access to new therapies like CAR-T therapy, we’re absolutely going to improve survivability and save the lives of many thousands of Australians in this country over the next decade. So Minister, thank you.


Happy to take questions on any of the announcements this morning and other matters beyond that.


How much, in total, will this Task Force cost? I know you said that the Government was putting $150,000 towards it. But in total what will the cost be and how long will it run for?


So the Task Force is expected to present its report by the end of May next year. The Budget that we have allocated is $150,000 and we believe that that will meet all of the costs, but what it is likely to do is lead to new recommendations in areas such as genomic screening.

So, the ability to have options for patients to test early, to see whether or not they have a predisposition to a particular type of blood cancer. And what I would like to see is, over the course of this decade, Australia become the world’s leading nation in terms of access to genomic screening.

That’s about early diagnosis, early treatment and therefore the best chance at avoidance and at recovery.


How confident are you the Task Force will be able to drive down the rates of blood cancer?


Well, we’ve seen an extraordinary result in terms of over the last three years an increase in survival rates for leukaemia, particularly childhood leukaemia, which was a catastrophic sentence in the 1980s for any family with that diagnosis.

Now, depending on the particular form, we have survival rates that are dramatically, multiples higher. And that’s been the work of our medical researchers.

We believe that with good will and hard work and an investment of resources we can achieve similar outcomes.

The goal is very simple. The Task Force will seek to put into action what the Leukaemia Foundation has identified as Australia’s great vision, and that is to become the first country in the world where blood cancer is a chronic condition, not a fatal condition.


If I’m able to move on to another issue now.

With the protests planned across the country today calling for the Tamil family to remain here, with their community in country Queensland also wanting them to stay and contribute to that regional community where they’ve settled, is it time for the Federal Government to drop its tough talk and, given the special circumstances of this family, listen to regional Queenslanders and let them stay and contribute to that community?


Look, I will respectfully leave that to the relevant Minister, the Minister for Home Affairs, particularly as there are legal elements still under appeal.


Do you personally believe they should be allowed to stay?


Again, because of the facts, I will respectfully leave that to the Minister for Home Affairs.


(Inaudible) to the flu vaccine. Victoria has had a similar program going on. Will this Federal program take over the costs of the individual state?


So, once the experts have recommended that a medicine or a vaccination be included on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or the National Immunisation Program, the Commonwealth takes the lead.

So the Commonwealth program will be available to all families with children between the age of six months and five years right across Australia.

And that means that we’ll take full responsibility for the provision of those medicines for free. We expect that up to 1.6 million Australian children will take advantage of this free vaccination.


And will that be included in the No Jab, No Pay (inaudible)?


So the way it works is that No Jab, No Pay withholds certain benefits if a family receiving Government benefits does not vaccinate their child.

That has been a very important part of driving up immunisation rates and we are going to continue that.

The vaccination program is available to all Australian families and at the moment it’s about $440 million a year, and what we’re looking forward to is continuously adding new vaccines and so we’ll continue with the No Jab, No Pay and No Jab, No Play programs, which have been driving vaccination rates up from 91. 86 to now 94.85 per cent.




Oh yes, yes. So the flu vaccination is a voluntary vaccine and will continue to be voluntary for families.


Just on the question of the Tamil family, Barnaby Joyce has this morning said that they should be allowed to stay. What do you make of that?


Look, I respect the right of everybody to present their views but I will be respectfully leaving the policy questions to the Minister for Home Affairs.


How much is the flu vaccination set to cost?


So, the details are currently being determined in conjunction with the company and we’ll release those in the budget once they’ve been finalised. But the key thing is, as we do with all our medicines, with vaccinations, if the experts recommend them then we will provide them, and we are committed to doing that.

I do want to reaffirm—sorry I misunderstood your question—the flu vaccination will continue to be a voluntary vaccination.


Just back to the blood cancer announcement, obviously there’s a lot of focus on bringing down the rates of death with this Task Force, but you also mentioned some of the effects that people are living with after having suffered from blood cancer. Can you elaborate on some of those?


Yes, of course. Blood cancer can have a deeply debilitating impact on a patient. It may mean extreme fatigue, it may mean that they have vastly diminished ability to move, without the strength, and of course some will be bed-ridden.

And so if we can reduce the rate of blood cancer, if we can improve the treatment and if we can aid in recovery then that will make a massive, life-changing difference and, in many, many cases, lifesaving difference for patients, as is the case with somebody such as Violet Uhi that I’ve met, or Lauren, or other patients over recent months.


Why (inaudible) that particular type of cancer have you picked to be the one that’s focused on in this Task Force?


Well, what we’ve had is wonderful leadership from the Leukaemia Foundation.

Their Blood Cancer Task Force has set out the fact that there’s more that can be done, more that can be done in terms of equity and in research.

The research we’ve just responded to. But one of the things that happens is that science evolves in different areas at different rates, and right now through what are called the cellular immunotherapies, the CAR-T therapy, we have a moment in history where we can strive forward to make breakthroughs.

So it’s the science meets the leadership which is coming together to give us a shot at aiming to eradicate death from blood cancer over the course of the coming decade.

Thank you very much.

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