Hepatitis C could finally be wiped out in the UK with ‘groundbreaking’ treatment for deadly disease

By Staff 7 Min Read

Hepatitis C could finally be eliminated in part of the UK thanks to increased rapid testing and a ‘groundbreaking’ antiviral drugs programme, according to the NHS

England could become the first country in the world to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat, NHS officials have said.

Investment in rapid-testing technology and an extension of a “groundbreaking” medicines deal will be rolled out as the final phase of NHS England’s 10-year elimination programme, which began in 2015.

Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver which, if left untreated, can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage over many years.

The virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. At-risk groups include drug users, current or former prisoners, the homeless, or people born in regions where the bloodborne disease is endemic, such as southeast Asia and eastern Europe.

The World Health Organization has set a target of eliminating the virus around the world by 2030. This is defined as 90% reduction of new chronic cases.

It is estimated that more than 60,000 people may be currently living with chronic hepatitis C in England without knowing they have the virus. Often there are no specific symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. When symptoms do occur – such as yellowed skin, not wanting to eat, upset stomach, throwing up or stomach pain – they are often mistaken for other conditions.

Since the elimination programme drive began in 2015, around 84,000 people have been treated for hepatitis C. New investment is now being pledged in securing antiviral medicines for the NHS, as well as providing more portable testing devices.

Anyone who thinks they could have contracted the virus at some stage is being urged to come forward for checks. NHS national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “This investment ensures the NHS will continue to save thousands of lives and set the international standard in the drive to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030 and, while tackling a significant health inequality.

“New portable testing devices, and an extension of our landmark commercial deal, is helping us reach those most at risk as we begin our final push to wipe out the virus and find and cure any remaining cases. We urge anyone who could be living with hepatitis C to get checked for peace of mind – there are a range of ways to get tested, including screening programmes or doing a simple test at home – if left untreated, the virus can lead to life-threatening conditions, but treatment is simple, curative and easily accessible.”

Dr Monica Desai, Head of Hepatitis at UKHSA, said elimination of the virus is now “in reach”. She commented: “Hepatitis C elimination as a public health threat is in reach if we can accelerate testing, support people to access effective treatment that clears the virus, reduce the stigma experienced by people living with hepatitis C and prevent people getting the infection in the first place – particularly for people who inject drugs.

“The symptoms of hepatitis C can go unnoticed for years. But the sooner you are diagnosed, the quicker you can get access to curative treatments and prevent serious liver damage. So, if you have ever injected drugs, even if it was a long time ago, please get tested. The test is quick and free and can be ordered via an online portal if you would prefer that rather than visiting your GP. You should also get tested if you have ever had medical treatment abroad, or had condomless sex with someone who may have hepatitis C.”

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