Hepatitis C ‘grossly under-prioritised’, warns charity

Just 3 per cent of people infected with hepatitis C are treated each year, despite it being curable, says a new report from the Hepatitis C Trust.

The virus is ‘grossly under-prioritised’ by health services, warns The uncomfortable truth: hepatitis C in England. Half of the estimated 160,000 people living with hepatitis C remain undiagnosed, it says, with up to £22m spent on emergency hospital admissions for ‘potentially avoidable’ complications in 2010-11 alone. Deaths and admissions for hepatitis C-related end-stage liver disease and liver cancer, meanwhile, have almost quadrupled in the last 15 years.

As the virus affects ‘the poorest in society’ the trust is calling for it to be made a major health inequalities issue by Public Health England, local authorities, the NHS and commissioning groups, with measures to encourage case finding by drug services, prisons, GPs and councils. Earlier this year the charity warned that just a quarter of local authorities were aware of how many people in their area had the virus (DDN, April, page 5). ‘Has [hepatitis C] been ignored and under-prioritised because most of the people living with, and dying from, the virus are from the most marginalised, vulnerable, deprived groups of society?’ says the document.

The charity also wants to see ‘improved access to sterile drugs paraphernalia’ and action to step up the treatment of current injecting drug users to ‘reduce the pool of infection’, while more public awareness work is also needed to reduce stigma and encourage testing. Other recommendations include that peer-to-peer awareness and support programmes be made available in all drug treatment centres, ‘opt-out’ testing be introduced in all prisons and that local referral pathways and support mechanisms are developed to ‘ensure that everyone who is diagnosed is successfully referred to specialist care’. The government is still to publish its national liver strategy, four years after it was promised, the report adds.

‘There must be no more excuses for the rising tide of deaths from hepatitis C,’ said the trust’s chief executive, Charles Gore. ‘It is a preventable and curable virus, yet huge numbers of people still remain undiagnosed and a mere 3 per cent of patients are receiving treatment each year.’ Instead of allowing the virus to ‘continue to take the lives of the poorest fastest’ it could be effectively eradicated in England within a generation, he stated. ‘To do this we must diagnose and offer care to everyone, regardless of their geographical location or background.’

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