A senior figure in health protection has spoken of the “unacceptable” rate of treatment for hepatitis C in the UK, as new figures were released showing deaths from the infection have more than quadrupled since the mid 1990s.
Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at Public Health England, said efforts must be redoubled to fight the infection as new figures were released showing a rise in the number of hospital admissions, liver transplants and deaths from the virus in the UK.
“It is increasingly important to raise awareness of the infection so that more individuals can be diagnosed and treated”
About 214,000 people are estimated to have long-term infection with hepatitis C in the UK but as recently as 2012 only around 3% of this group in England were starting treatment annually, he wrote in a foreword to a PHE report on the infection.
“This unacceptable position continues, despite effective treatments being available, and we must redouble our efforts to prevent, raise awareness, test for and treat people with this infection,” he said.
Deaths from hepatitis C more than quadrupled from 98 in 1996 to 428 in 2012 in the UK, according to the report, with first registrations for liver transplants from patients where post-hepatitis C cirrhosis was cited more than quadrupling from 45 in 1996 to 188 in 2013.
Hospital admissions from hepatitis C related end-stage liver disease more than tripled from 608 from 1996 to 2,390 in 2012.
The virus is usually transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Injecting drugs is the leading risk of becoming infected with around half of people in this group thought to have the virus.
Other people who might have been infected include those who received blood transfusions in the UK before September 1991 as well as anybody who has received medical or dental treatment in countries where the virus is common and infection control is poor.
Hepatitis C is a global health problem, the report authors note, with an estimated 150 million people infected long term worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 350,000 people will die each year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases.
“What this report highlights is the pressing need for immediate scale-up of the whole response to hepatitis C”
An estimated 10,850 people currently have hepatitis C-related cirrhosis or liver cancer in England, and the report predicts that this figure will rise to 13,590 in 2025 if the low coverage of current treatments continues.
Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis C expert at PHE, who led publication of the report, said: “Our latest… report highlights where national progress in tackling the infection has been made, but it also shows the scale of the challenge ahead.
“Transmission among risk groups continues and significant numbers remain undiagnosed and untreated,” she said.
“With many new and improved treatments on the horizon, it is increasingly important to raise awareness of the infection so that more individuals can be diagnosed and treated,” she added.
Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust said: “Despite the examples of good practice and the availability of effective treatments, we must accept that the rising hospital episodes and deaths, the poor diagnosis rate and the shockingly low level of treatment mean we are failing patients.
“What this report highlights is the pressing need for immediate scale-up of the whole response to hepatitis C from prevention, through diagnosis and into treatment.”