Political leaders from Scotland have spoken out to reaffirm their commitment to eliminating hepatitis C for World Hepatitis Day on the 28th July 2019.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus infecting around 21,000 people in Scotland, of whom half are unaware they have the infection. People can live with hepatitis C for decades without symptoms, but untreated cases can cause fatal cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the third most common cause of liver disease, one of the five ‘big killers’ in the UK and the only one where mortality is rising.
There are a number of transmission routes, but the most common is through the sharing of drug equipment which accounts for around 90% of new infections. Other routes include receiving blood products or blood transfusions through the NHS before adequate screening in the 1990s, and the sharing of toothbrushes, scissors and razors. A very low percentage of infections occur through mother to baby transmission, needlestick injuries, and unprotected sex where blood is involved. Receiving medical treatment, getting a haircut or shave, and getting a tattoo overseas in countries where razors and needles are not sterilised to such a high standard is also a route of transmission.
Scotland has signed up to the World Health Organisation’s target to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030. Today, First Minister for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon reiterated this pledge.
Sturgeon celebrated how far the nation has come in tackling hepatitis C: “I am proud that Scotland is recognised as a world leader in combatting hepatitis C and I am determined to maintain this position.”
However, she conceded that work needs to continue. In Scotland, Sturgeon stated that the Scottish Government needs “to build on this momentum to do all we can to reach out to the thousands of people who live with hepatitis C undiagnosed”. She called on people to get tested and treated this World Hepatitis Day.
This was echoed by Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader, who argued that “it’s vital that we continue to raise awareness of hepatitis C and how swift treatment can reduce the likelihood of serious liver conditions developing”. She also warned that “the journey [to elimination] is not yet complete” and that the government must “be vigilant” and ensure people are encouraged to get tested and given access to treatment.
Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour leader, set out the case for hepatitis C being “a health inequalities issue which we have a moral imperative to treat”. He emphasised the “extraordinary opportunity to cure thousands of marginalised people of a potentially deadly virus” which the current landscape provides. With few people experiencing specific symptoms, Leonard called for anyone who thinks they may be at risk to go to their GP and get tested and treated.
Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “We welcome these statements of support from Scottish party leaders and hope that this World Hepatitis Day presents an opportunity for the Scottish Government to put these declarations into policy.
“With highly effective treatments available through the NHS, there is no reason for anyone to be living with hepatitis C. We need to urgently find those still living with an undiagnosed infection and support them to access treatment.”
Read the full statements here.