People who inject drugs are the group most affected by hepatitis C in the UK: around 90% of the hepatitis C infections diagnosed in the UK will have been acquired through injecting drug use. Across the UK 13,758 hepatitis C infections were diagnosed during 2013.
Around half of the people living with hepatitis C infections don’t know it, according to a new publication from Public Health England (PHE) ‘Shooting up: infections among people who inject drugs in the UK 2013’ published on the 5th November 2014.
In total, 13,758 hepatitis C infections were diagnosed in 2013 in the UK, with around 90% acquired through injecting drug use. Around 2 in 5 people who inject psychoactive drugs such as heroin, crack and amphetamines are now living with hepatitis C, but half of these infections remain undiagnosed. This is why Blenheim in partnership with a wide range of organisations under the banner of the Hepatitis C Coalition is doing everything we can at a national, local and operational level to ensure more people at risk now or in the past get tested. I agree 100% with PHE when they state “Interventions to diagnose infections earlier, reduce transmission and treat those infected need to be continued and expanded, with the goal of reducing the prevalence of hepatitis C.” Current service provision needs rapid expansion.
If caught early hepatitis C can be successfully treated with antiviral medications. Often, hepatitis C infection remains asymptomatic and is only diagnosed after liver damage has occurred. Left untreated hepatitis C infection can result in severe liver damage, liver cancer, liver failure, and even death. This is why Blenheim is appalled that only a shameful 3 out of every 100 people with hepatitis C are treated each year. Treatment can completely cure most people at a fraction of the life time cost of treating HIV.
In 2013 there were 7,290 cases of tuberculosis reported in England, which is a rate of 13.5 cases per 100,000 population and TB is now one of PHE’s 7 priorities. My unscientific back of a fag packet approach suggests a rate for 21 cases per 100,000 population being diagnosed annually with hepatitis C. (Yes I adjusted for hepatitis C being UK and TB being England in relevant PHE figures).
If this is the case PHE need to prioritise hepatitis C treatment and the treatment of injecting drug users. Indeed their own experts agree.
Dr Vivian Hope, a PHE expert in infections among people who inject drugs, said: “with around half of those people living with hepatitis C still unaware of their infection, we need to do more to increase diagnosis rates. Ultimately, this will help reduce the current high level of infection we’re still seeing among people who inject drugs”.
Dr Fortune Ncube, Consultant Epidemiologist and lead for PHE on Injecting Drug Use said: to reduce transmission and decrease rates of hepatitis C infection it is imperative that we maintain adequate provision of effective interventions such as needle and syringe programmes, opiate substitution and other drug treatment.
With many services for drug and alcohol dependent people being cut back significantly across the country we are in danger of a continuing increase in the numbers infected with hepatitis C and even more people not getting the treatment they so urgently need.