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GPs warned of Hepatitis C crisis

New guidance hopes to speed detection and improve treatment before Hep C cases spiral

By Mark Gould

Friday, 13 July 2007

The Royal College of General Practitioners is warning that unless testing and treatment of Hepatitis C is improved, the virus will cost the NHS up to eight billion pounds over the next 30 years as increasing numbers of people require treatment for cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancers.

Launching new management guidance on Hepatitis C, the RCGP estimates that every GP has up to 18 infected patients on their list some who do not know they have the condition.

Produced for GPs, practice nurses and clinicians in primary care, the guidance aims to increase awareness and prevention of Hepatitis C (HCV) transmission along with improved testing, diagnosis and treatment for patients who are already infected.

It is estimated that between 0.4-1 per cent of the UK population are infected with HCV, equating to 250,000 - 600,000 sufferers. The main risk for infection in the UK is current or past injecting drug use.

Other risks include receipt of blood transfusion (prior to 1991) or being born or receiving healthcare in a high-risk country.

Early treatment of chronic hepatitis C (CHC) is more effective at clearing the virus in 50 to 80 per cent of people, depending on their genotype, but Britain currently has a poor record in treating patients with CHC.

Out of the total population infected fewer than 17 per cent have been diagnosed and it is estimated that only about one in 20 of those who are diagnosed are being treated each year.

Dr Chris Ford, a member of the RCGP Sex, Drugs & HIV Task Group and lead author of the guidance, says: 'Early symptoms of hepatitis C infection are unusual so many people may not realise they have caught the virus, but we know that early treatment is more effective before liver damage has occurred.

'Every GP is likely to have between eight to 18 infected individuals on their patient list so it is essential that we working in general practice strengthen our knowledge about this disease, increase our testing and encourage those who test positive to attend for early treatment. We hope that the guidance will be useful in bringing about this change.

'We would also encourage primary care practitioners to complete the Hepatitis C e-module that we have recently developed so that they can put their knowledge of the infection to the test.'

'Guidance for the prevention, testing, treatment and management of hepatitis C in primary care', is available to download from http://www.rcgp.org.uk

The Hepatitis C module can be accessed via http://www.doctors.net.uk/

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