People with hepatitis C in the UK have a greater chance of being cured now than at any other point in the history of the disease. Recent advances in medicines mean that for many people they work better than before, treatment times are shorter and the drugs have fewer side effects and are easier on the body. However, while treatment for hepatitis C is changing fast, the eventual impact this will have on the societal burden of hepatitis C may be a great deal slower.
To understand why it may be harder for new advances to help communities, we need to understand the unique hepatitis C environment as it can be very complicated, especially for people also living with addiction issues.
A complex picture
Around 214,000 people are infected with hepatitis C in the UK. Injecting drugs continues to be the most common way to contract hepatitis C, with half of people who inject drugs (PWID) in England and Wales thought to have been infected. In addition, about half of those again are not aware that they have the virus.
While testing and diagnosis numbers have increased over the last five years, the number of people with hepatitis C being treated is still low.1 Historically a number of barriers and challenges have existed preventing people living with the virus from being treated successfully. These range from:
- clinical barriers like the effectiveness
of treatment and side effects
- environmental barriers like suitable services for people dealing with addiction issues
- personal barriers, such as low awareness about the seriousness of hepatitis C and care options available.
With the recent developments in treatment giving hope that clinical barriers to care will shift, the differences that exist among the population that suffer from hepatitis C mean other barriers are not so easily fixed. Stigma linked with hepatitis C infection and substance use is just one of the many complex challenges people face which may stop them from getting the care and services that they deserve.
As available treatments will get rid of the virus in about nine out of ten hepatitis C patients, depending on their type of hepatitis C, there is a worry that vulnerable groups with complicated needs won’t be in a position to take advantage of these advances which could potentially transform their health.
Over the coming months and years, services will need to be restructured to create better pathways to treatment; however an urgent need remains to motivate people living with hepatitis C to access care and services. We need to help patients realise that they are worth the best care and treatment: it doesn’t matter how someone got hepatitis C, no one deserves to live with a life-threatening virus when today’s treatments offer a better chance of cure.
In response to many of these issues the I’m Worth… campaign has been created to support people living with hepatitis C. It aims to address the stigma that many people with the virus face, encouraging and empowering people living with hepatitis C to access care and services no matter how or when they were infected. The campaign includes a web resource, materials and activities to help people feel comfortable and motivated to access NHS services, which may increase their chance of cure.
In a series of promotional features in DDN over the coming months, we will look in detail at many of the challenges that the hepatitis C community faces and explore the role of professionals in the drug and alcohol field in supporting them.
1PHE. Hepatitis C in the UK 2015. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/448710/NEW_FINAL_HCV_2015_IN_THE_UK_REPORT_28072015_v2.pdf (Accessed April 2016)
The I’m Worth… campaign is supported by several patient groups with an interest in hepatitis C in the UK. The campaign, including this promotional feature, is sponsored and developed by Gilead Sciences, a science-based pharmaceutical company.
April 2016, HCV/UK/16-03/CI/1335a
For more information on the campaign and to access materials designed to support people living with hepatitis C please visit www.imworth.co.uk