Local authorities unready for hep C responsibility

Local authorities are ‘not ready to take responsibility’ for hepatitis C, according to an audit of English commission­ers and local councils by the Hepatitis C Trust. 

Despite local authorities assuming responsibility for public health, just a quarter are aware of how many people in their area are living with – or at risk of – hepatitis C, says Opportunity knocks? An audit of hepatitis C services during the transition, while only 20 per cent have an appointed hepatitis C lead. Fewer still have a strategy for tackling the virus, and just 40 per cent have arrangements in place with NHS commissioners to coordinate hepatitis C work. Almost half of NHS commissioners, meanwhile, have no measures in place to increase treatment. 

All local authorities need to develop a comprehensive hepatitis C strategy, jointly agreed with commissioning groups and taking account of local need, says the document, as well as having a designated liver health lead on their health and wellbeing board with hepatitis C a clear part of their remit. The report also calls for Public Health England to set out plans to establish a national liver intelligence network, and for authorities to ensure that preventative measures are targeted to all at-risk groups in their local communities.

Around 216,000 people are thought to be infected with the virus in the UK, while the government has still to deliver its 15-month-overdue liver strategy, the Hepatitis C Trust points out. ‘We face a real challenge in ensuring that public health and NHS services are commissioned holistically,’ said chief executive Charles Gore. ‘2013 is a critical year for the NHS and local authorities. With the correct action, it can also be a turning point for hepatitis C. We could eradicate hepatitis C in the UK in a generation. What a tragedy to look back in 20 years and realise that we didn’t eradicate it when we had the opportunity.’

Meanwhile the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has confirmed that a person who injected heroin has died from an anthrax infection in Suffolk, while NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde also confirmed the death of an injecting drug user who had tested positive for anthrax.

The deaths bring the number of UK cases in the current outbreak to eight. Five of these have been fatal, and there have also been non-fatal cases in Germany, France and Denmark. ‘We have advised local agencies to talk to their service users who inject drugs about the risk of anthrax infection,’ said HPA consultant in communicable disease control Dr Chris Williams. 

Research published in the scientific journal Eurosurveillance shows that the same bacillus anthrax strain could be responsible for all of the cases of anthrax among European drug users dating back as far as 2000, when a drug user in Norway became infected. The results ‘indicate the probability of a single source contaminating heroin and that the outbreak could have lasted for at least a decade’, it says.