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New drive to encourage those at risk of hepatitis C to get tested

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An urgent call for people to get tested for hepatitis C virus has been made by Public Health England, after new survey data suggested a lack of awareness.

PHE said it was “strongly” encouraging anyone who may have been at risk of hepatitis C infection to get tested, whether or not they have any symptoms. The testing drive is also being backed by the government ministers from England, Scotland and Wales.

“It is crucial that people are tested and diagnosed in order that they can access treatment early”

Helen Harris

PHE highlighted that “free and simple testing” was available from local GPs, sexual health clinics, genitourinary medicine clinics or drug treatment services.

It noted that the virus could cause severe liver damage, including an increased risk of liver cancer, though specific symptoms do not become noticeable until significant liver damage is caused.

Some people with hepatitis C may experience flu-like symptoms, tiredness and abdominal pain, which can easily be ignored or mistaken for other conditions, it added.

The move to boost testing uptake follows research commissioned by the Hepatitis C Trust, which is partnering with PHE on the new initiative to promote World Hepatitis Day that takes place on 28 July each year.

The charity’s research showed that 80% of people were aware of hepatis C virus but less than 40% knew it infects the liver. In addition, less than 30% knew the virus was curable.

When asked how hepatitis C was transmitted, 30% incorrectly said it was through exchanging saliva and less than half knew that symptoms were not always obvious and can go unnoticed.

Dr Helen Harris, clinical scientist and research associate for Public Health England, said: “The results of this survey highlight the very low levels of awareness of hepatitis C and the factors that can put people at risk of infection.

“We strongly encourage anyone who may have been at risk of hepatitis C infection to get tested, whether or not they have any symptoms,” she added.

Based on latest data, PHE noted that around 200,000 people in the UK were thought to be living with chronic hepatitis C.

In England, around one third of those with a long-term infection were believed to be over the age of 50 and may have acquired the infection years earlier.

The agency said testing was encouraged in people who received a blood transfusion before September 1991, or a blood product before 1986 in the UK.

Other risk factors included the sharing of needles, razors or toothbrushes, medical and dental treatment in unsterilised places abroad, unprotective sex and the use of unsterilized tattoo or piercing equipment.

The World Health Organization’s has a stated ambition of eliminating hepatitis C as a major public health threat by 2030.

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