By LEIGH HUBBARD*
If you were dying of an incurable and painful cancer and had to enter a lucky dip to pay for
treatment that would extend your life, how would you feel?
That’s the prospect facing thousands of Victorians today…and as yet most of them don’t know it.
If cancers were defined by character, mesothelioma would be at the cruel and sadistic end of the
It aggressively attacks the lining of the lungs or the abdomen and by the time most people find out
they have this insidious disease, it’s almost certainly already incurable and a sufferer may have only months to live.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. Diagnosis may come 40 years later, which makes it
difficult to prove how the disease was contracted.
You don’t have to be a tradesman who worked on a building site to have mesothelioma. The fastest-increase in diagnosis is among women – and most of them did little more to contract the disease than wash their husband’s overalls or sit on their dad’s knee.
If you think you can’t be affected, consider that a third of all pre-1987 Australian homes are estimated to contain asbestos.
Australia imported 3000 tonnes of asbestos a year until it was finally banned in 2005.
Fleeting exposure to the tiniest asbestos fibre poses a risk.
This is the disease that Bernie Banton, the public face of the fight against James Hardie, was
diagnosed with only last week.
Asbestos-related diseases will kill six Australians every day over the next 20 years. The number of
diagnosed cases of mesothelioma is expected to reach 18,000 by 2020, when the disease numbers
are expected to peak.
So right now another 11,000 Australians are oblivious to an asbestos time bomb ticking away inside
There’s no cure to mesothelioma, but there are treatments that can lessen the pain and give
sufferers more time with their loved ones.
The treatment regarded as “gold standard” is a cocktail of two drugs, Cisplatin and Alimta. Clinical
evidence shows that this may extend the life of a dying patient by about three months, and up to a
year or more for some victims.
It costs around $20,000 for the standard course of six treatments.
What’s angering mesothelioma sufferers is that the authorities and Federal Government won’t
provide Alimta free-of-charge on the PBS.
A report by the Allen Consulting Group, released in Melbourne today, finds that although there’s no
PBS coverage there’s also patchy provision through the State health systems.
Contrast that with smokers with lung cancer.
They have PBS coverage for Alimta, yet many knew the risks of what they were doing when they lit
If you have mesothelioma, there are ways to pay for your life-extending treatment. None of them
provide absolute certainty or peace-of-mind. Some are like spinning a roulette wheel.
You might stump up your workers compensation pay-out – presuming you have one – but you won’t
be covered unless you prove the disease was contracted in the course of employment.
Some private health insurers will cover you - but that varies wildly from fund to fund – and who
would have sought coverage for lung diseases 30 years ago when we were unaware of the dangers
In Western Australian, public hospitals universally provide Alimta free-of-charge but in Victoria, the
Government has refused to follow suit.
Public hospitals have special funds to pay for rare drugs but applications are assessed by committees
and they aren’t sitting on unlimited pots of money.
Do we really need to place more strain on our struggling state hospital system or on mesothelioma
patients already battling a killer disease?
In Victoria, some law firms will loan you the money and recoup it through court action. They’ll even
write it off if you die or lose the case.
Some 75 percent of Victorians with the disease and in need of money to cover their treatment costs
are going down this course.
But they shouldn’t have to. That’s advocacy groups around the country have embarked on a national
campaign to have Alimta PBS-listed.
Australians living with a deadly disease contracted (through no fault of their own) deserve to be
taken care of by the people they elect – especially when their Federal Government is sitting on a $17
billon election year surplus.
Subsidising the best treatment for mesolthelioma patients would cost about $33m over five years.
Which is less than half of what the Federal Government is paying for its share of the costs of next
week’s APEC meeting in Sydney.
Or the equivalent of what Australia will give in foreign aid to China this year.
Yes, China – Olympics host, economic powerhouse of our region and the world’s fourth-richest nation.
If our country can give money to industrial superpowers it can afford to pay for dying mesothelioma
sufferers to get the same taxpayer-subsidised treatment as smokers.
It’s only right and fair. Tell your local Federal and politician.
*Leigh Hubbard is the Executive Officer of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Victoria (ADSVIC). Send
donations to ADSVIC at 200 Lygon Street, Carlton 3053. Find more information at www.adsvic.org.au