About two thirds of people in the UK who are infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) could be unaware of the fact and so missing out on treatment for life-threatening liver disease, Public Health England warned this morning. It is urging everyone who believes they might be at risk of ever having contracted HCV to get tested, as they can suffer liver damage even while remaining symptomless for decades after infection.
PHE today published its latest reports and data for hepatitis C infection in the UK as a whole, and in England. PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie pointed out that there is some good news – new estimates suggest that about 143,000 people in the UK are living with chronic HCV infection, a reduction of more than 20% on 2015’s figures. There has also been a 19% fall in reported deaths between 2015 and 2018, and the UK has exceeded the World Health Organisation (WHO) target of reducing HCV-related mortality by 10% by the year 2020 three years early.
But the reports also reveal that of these remaining 143,000 people in the UK with chronic infections, two thirds (95,600) are thought to be undiagnosed, which PHE said is preventing them from getting treatment that could save their life.
The authors noted that injecting drug use is the greatest risk factor for HCV infection in the UK – UK survey data from 2018 suggest that of those who inject drugs, just over half (54% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 57% in Scotland) tested positive for HCV antibody, and more than a quarter had evidence of current infection (27% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 31% in Scotland).
Despite their high risk, about two thirds of people who inject drugs in the UK were found in recent surveys to be unaware of their HCV antibody positive status (72% of those who had injected in the past six months in the Needle Exchange Surveillance Initiative survey in Scotland in 2017-18; and 63% among those who had injected in the past year in the Unlinked Anonymous Monitoring survey in 2018 in the rest of the UK).
They said: “Our ability to sustain the current increase in numbers accessing treatment will be limited by our capacity to find and treat the undiagnosed, and to help those who are diagnosed but untreated to engage with local treatment services.”
PHE is urging anyone who believes they might have been at risk of contracting hepatitis C, especially if they have ever injected drugs, to get tested. Its senior scientist Dr Helen Harris, senior scientist at PHE, said: “Hepatitis C can have devastating consequences but most cases can be cured if detected in time, which is why it’s so important to find and treat those who may be infected.
“Anyone who may be at risk of infection, in particular those who have ever injected drugs, even if they injected only once or in the past, should get tested. Given that new treatments provide a cure in around 95% of those who take them, there has never been a better time to get tested.”