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Councils unprepared for public health threat of Hep C

Survey shows lack of information and planning to deal with rising rates of disease

Mark Gould

Monday, 11 March 2013

With local authorities in England set to take over responsibility for public health from next month a new survey reveals that only a quarter who responded know how many people in their area are living with, or at risk of, hepatitis C.

It also reveals that only 20 per cent have a lead for hepatitis C and even fewer have a strategy in place for tackling the virus and that only 40 per cent have arrangements with relevant local NHS commissioners to ensure work is coordinated to tackle hepatitis C.

The survey ‘Opportunity knocks? An audit of hepatitis C services during the transition' was conducted by The Hepatitis C Trust which is calling for urgent action.

It also found that:

  • Not enough people are being tested in GP practices: only half of NHS commissioners encourage testing for hepatitis C at GP surgeries.
  • Not enough people are being treated: almost half of NHS commissioners do not have measures in place to increase the treatment of hepatitis C.
  • Monitoring of hepatitis C outcomes is not routine: many NHS commissioners have not been effectively monitoring the uptake of hepatitis C treatment. Only half hold information about the number of patients initiated on treatment and just a third know how many people have cleared the virus as a result of treatment.

Hepatitis C Trust chief executive Charles Gore, said: “Deaths from liver disease are increasing and within liver disease it is deaths from hepatitis C that are increasing the fastest. Failure to tackle hepatitis C will result in a significant increase in costs to the NHS and wider society.”

The trust says that in spite of calls from the Chief Medical Officer and a personal commitment from the Prime Minister for liver diseases, including hepatitis C, to be tackled as a priority no real action has yet been taken. The Liver Strategy promised by the Government is now 15 months overdue. 

Mr Gore called for urgent relationship building between local authority and NHS commissioners: “We face a real challenge in ensuring that public health and NHS services are commissioned holistically. 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.”

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that currently affects 216,000 people in the UK. It can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer yet more than half of those living with the condition are undiagnosed. If caught early, it can be treated and cured. However, only three per cent of people with the virus receive treatment each year.

To support NHS and public health commissioners through the transition, the report makes 14 recommendations for how services and outcomes for hepatitis C could be improved and ultimately eradicated from the UK.

These include ensuring all local authorities have a designated liver health lead on health and wellbeing boards, and for the Health Education England to raise awareness of the Royal College of General Practitioners’ training module on the detection, diagnosis and management of hepatitis B and C, and encourage GPs to undertake it as part of their professional development. 

Mr Gore concludes: “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.”

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