Deaths from hepatitis C-related end-stage liver disease have decreased by 11% in the last year in England, but diagnoses of advanced liver disease and related cancers remain stable.
This is according to new figures from Public Health England (PHE), which come after a continued rise in the number of deaths from hepatitis C over the last decade.
Why have deaths fallen?
PHE attributes the fall to increased use of new antiviral medications. Now available on the NHS, these drugs have the potential to cure the condition in most cases. They also come with fewer side effects than previously used medicines.
The number of people accessing treatment has risen by 19% on the previous year and by 125% on pre-2015 levels.
Despite this success, an average of 1,974 end-stage liver disease and cancer cases are being newly diagnosed each year, with the rate remaining stable between 2011 and 2015.
“The fall in deaths from hepatitis C-related advanced liver disease in the last year … shows we’re making positives steps towards reaching our overall goal of elimination of hepatitis C as a major public health threat,” said Dr Sema Mandal, consultant epidemiologist at PHE.
“However, more needs to be done.”
What is hepatitis C?
If untreated, infection with the hepatitis C virus can result in liver damage, cancer and even death. It is typically spread through blood-to-blood contact by sharing needles, but it can also be passed on by sharing a razor or toothbrush with an infected person.
The disease often has no symptoms until it causes serious complications many years later, which makes urgent testing and prompt treatment all the more important. Prevention through needle and syringe exchange services and opiate substitution therapies is also crucial to achieve and maintain elimination.
Who is at risk of hepatitis C?
Roughly 200,000 people have a long-term infection with hepatitis C virus in the UK. Most at risk of infection are people who have ever injected drugs. But around half of people living with hepatitis C do not know they have the infection.
Public Health England is therefore urging certain groups of people to get tested at their GP, community drug services, or sexual health clinic, namely anyone who:
- Has previously been diagnosed with hepatitis C
- Has ever injected drugs, even once or a long time ago
- Has had a tattoo or medical treatment overseas where proper hygiene procedures may not have been followed and/or
- Has had a blood transfusion before hepatitis C screening was in place.