“Unacceptable” hepatitis C services in England are leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, according to a report from a pressure group.
Deaths caused by the blood-borne virus, which affects the liver, have quadrupled since 1996, said the Hepatitis C Coalition.
“We need strong national leadership, co-ordination and oversight to ensure patients do not die prematurely when a cure is available”
It blamed poor service provision and late identification and treatment and warned that deaths from the virus could continue to grow for at least 20 years if left unchecked.
In addition, it called for ministers to commit to halving liver cancers and deaths related to the virus by 2020 and completely eliminate it by 2030.
Professor Mark Thursz, chair of the Hepatitis C Coalition, said: “We are in a very fortunate position to have cost effective treatments that will cure the majority of hepatitis C patients but we need to find these patients and treat them.
“To seize this opportunity we need strong national leadership, co-ordination and oversight to ensure patients do not die prematurely when a cure is available,” he said.
Around 160,000 people are chronically infected with hepatitis C in England alone, with an estimated 215,000 chronic patients in the whole of the UK.
Deaths from the virus, which can infect and damage the cells of the liver, rose from 98 in 1996 to 428 in 2012, according to Public Health England figures.
It means that deaths from hepatitis C are rising faster than any disease among the UK’s list of five “big killers” – heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung and liver disease.
Although there is no vaccine, early treatment can successfully get rid of the virus and ongoing infection can be managed.
Rolling Stones guitarrist Keith Richards, actress Pamela Anderson and singer Marianne Faithfull are among high-profile patients who have been diagnosed with hepatitis C.
The virus is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood and if left untreated can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.
An estimated 49% of people who inject drugs in England are thought to have it, but sharing razors or toothbrushes is also a risk.
“The landscape of hepatitis C treatment is changing rapidly and an era of vastly improved treatment is potentially on the way”
In most cases, the virus causes no noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged but when symptoms do occur they can easily be mistaken for other conditions such as flu or depression.
The Hepatitis C Coalition’s Vision For Change in Hepatitis C report sets out eight recommendations, including improvements in diagnosing and screening for the virus and quicker access to medicines.
It also called for the Department of Health to take responsibility for a plan to coordinate effective testing, treatment and prevention.
Dr Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England, said: “We welcome initiatives that stimulate discussion around hepatitis C and the challenges we face tackling the infection.
“With around 160,000 people in England living with chronic hepatitis C, there is an urgent need to scale up our response and prevent more deaths and serious illness,” he said.
“The landscape of hepatitis C treatment is changing rapidly and an era of vastly improved treatment is potentially on the way, but while disease burden continues to rise we must implement better monitoring and reporting of treatment outcomes, as well as expansion of treatment into non-traditional settings, such as primary care, drug treatment centres, and prisons,” he added.