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Public health doctors encourage hepatitis C testing

Now tablets can clear the virus faster and with fewer side-effects

Mark Gould

Monday, 31 July 2017

Public Health England (PHE) is urging people who may be in at risk groups to be tested for hepatitis C (hep C). Doctors estimate that around 200,000 people in the UK are thought to be living with chronic hep C infection, with a substantial proportion unaware they have it.

PHE says that many of those who are infected will be over the age of 50 and may have no or few specific symptoms. Those infected previously faced weeks of injections, with some experiencing severe side effects and struggling to complete their treatment. Now, tablets can clear the virus quicker and more effectively, with fewer side effects. This is thought to have contributed to the recent fall in deaths from severe hepatitis C related liver disease.

PHE says there is a risk of hepatitis C for people who have:

  • received a blood transfusion before September 1991, or a blood product before 1986 in the UK
  • shared needles or other equipment to inject drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago
  • had medical or dental treatment abroad in unsterile conditions
  • had a tattoo, piercing, acupuncture, electrolysis, or semi-permanent make up using equipment that may have been unsterilised
  • had unprotected sex with someone who has, or might have, hepatitis C
  • shared a razor or toothbrush with someone who has, or might have, hepatitis C

Despite its debilitating effect on the liver, many with hepatitis C may have no specific symptoms, with some – including tiredness and abdominal pain – easily ignored or mistaken for other conditions.

Free and simple testing is available from GPs, sexual health clinics, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics or drug treatment services.

Dr Helen Harris, clinical scientist in PHE’s Immunisation, Hepatitis and Blood Safety Department, said: "We strongly encourage anyone who may have been at risk of hep C infection to get tested, whether or not they have any symptoms. The sooner treatment starts, the greater the chance of avoiding long-term health complications. If people are unsure, they should visit their GP or take our quick online quiz to find out whether they might have been exposed to the hep C virus and would benefit from a test.

"We are hopeful that the increased access to improved treatments over recent years has contributed to the latest fall in deaths from severe hep C related liver disease. This, combined with interventions to prevent infection in the first place, can help us to achieve our vision of eliminating hep C as a major public health threat in the UK."

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