Hepatitis C will be eradicated in England by 2025, the NHS believes, after the successful implementation of antiviral drugs and programs to find people infected without knowing it.
In 2019, NHS England signed a five-year contract with pharmaceutical companies to supply cheaper medicines to thousands and to ‘find and treat’ long-lost patients, such as the homeless and those with mental health problems.
It also launched an NHS screening program in September to search health records and identify people at risk, such as those who had historical blood transfusions or those with HIV.
Since the scheme’s launch, deaths from hepatitis C, including liver disease and cancer, have fallen by 35 percent, while 70,000 people who did not know they had the virus have been found and cured.
The number of people seeking liver transplants due to the virus has also dropped by two-thirds, and the number of annual registrations for a liver transplant has dropped from more than 140 per year to less than 50 per year in 2020.
This figure is expected to be even lower in 2022 and the NHS is now on track to eliminate hepatitis C five years ahead of the World Health Organization (WHO) target of 2030, potentially becoming the first in the world to eradicate the virus.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England’s National Medical Director, said: “The NHS is leading the world in the campaign to eliminate hepatitis C and save thousands of lives, while tackling significant health inequality in the process.
“Thanks to targeted detection and because the NHS has a proven track record of amazing drug deals that give patients access to the latest medicines, we are on track to exceed global targets and become the first country to eliminate hepatitis C by (the World Health Organization goal of) 2030 , which will be a historic achievement.”
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that if left untreated, it can cause liver cancer and liver failure. You usually don’t show symptoms until the virus damages your liver enough to cause liver disease.
Other associated symptoms include fatigue and difficulty concentrating, and hepatitis C is also linked to cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, kidney disease, and musculoskeletal pain.
Until recently, the stigma attached to hepatitis C, which can be spread by sharing needles, meant that many people were unwilling to come forward and be tested for the virus.
But the virus is preventable, treatable, and for most people, curable. Effective antiviral drugs that have come on the market in recent years can now cure more than 95 percent of people in just a few months.
NHS England is working with local health services, charities, councils and volunteer groups to find potential patients, test for infection and provide treatment.
Sara Hide, hepatitis C coordinator at St Mungo’s in Oxford, which is running a ‘find and treat’ program in the city, said: “People who have been homeless are at higher risk of contracting hepatitis C.
“This may be due to substance use, but also to sharing toothbrushes, razors and other general lifestyle factors associated with sleeping outdoors.
“With hepatitis C treatment now less invasive, an 8-12 week course of medication, we have seen an uptake in people who respond to our screening services.”
The NHS has also put in place a scheme to find children with the virus and since its launch last year more than 100 children received antivirals to cure infections.
Lord Markham, Minister of Health. He said: “We are paving the way for the elimination of Hepatitis C, with England being one of the first countries in the world to eliminate the virus.”