Today (28th July), on World Hepatitis Day, politicians from across the political spectrum in England, Scotland and Wales have pledged their support to eliminating hepatitis C in the UK. As a blood-borne virus that can cause fatal cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated – and one that predominantly affects the most vulnerable people in our society – it is critical that now, more than ever, the UK takes sustained action to finally rid itself of this disease.
Hepatitis C perpetuates health inequalities and leads to additional pressure on the NHS through the expensive and complicated issues associated with end stage liver disease that it can cause. While treating liver disease may be difficult, treating hepatitis C is not: medication available on the NHS for the last five years is quick, easy to take and highly effective. The development of these drugs and subsequent momentum led by the World Health Organization’s Viral Hepatitis Strategy (which the UK signed up to in 2016) has created an extraordinary opportunity to end a harrowing chapter in the history of infectious diseases and be free of this virus.
In reaffirming their commitment to finding and treating the 143,000 people estimated to have an active hepatitis C infection in the UK, politicians from central and local government have paid tribute to the incredible work already achieved across the country. Workers in drugs services and homeless hostels are essential in reaching the elimination target, given they have the greatest contact with the groups hepatitis C primarily affects, and have succeeded in testing and treating thousands of people in the last few years.
The support of politicians today marks a phenomenal shift from the environment The Hepatitis C Trust was working in ten years ago, when the prospect of eliminating hepatitis C seemed out of reach. On the 28th July at the dawn of the next decade, we hope to see a new era welcomed in: one in which hepatitis C is a disease of the past.
Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “The public support of leading politicians this World Hepatitis Day shows how far we have come in the last ten years. While we have some way yet to go until the UK can claim to have eliminated hepatitis C, today is an opportunity to celebrate the thousands of people treated for the virus so far. The hard work and resource invested in tackling hepatitis C in recent months has been phenomenal to see.
“As we look to the future, we must ensure these efforts are supported by adequate preventative measures, such as providing needle exchanges for people who inject drugs and easy to access information about harm reduction.
“With highly effective treatment available on the NHS, there is no reason for anyone to be living with or dying from hepatitis C. Tackling this virus must therefore be a public health imperative to reduce the inequalities faced by people who inject drugs and prevent unnecessary deaths.”
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “I’m proud that, despite the extraordinary challenges presented by Covid-19, our health and care services continue to do all they can towards our shared goal of eliminating Hepatitis C.
“If left untreated, the virus can be extremely damaging, but once diagnosed it can be managed quickly and effectively enabling patients to make a full recovery. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to reach out to London’s most vulnerable and under-served communities to ensure they receive the vital healthcare they need.”
Alex Norris, Shadow Public Health Minister, said: “Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus predominantly transmitted through the sharing of drug-taking equipment such as needles and syringes. Around 90,000 people in the UK are estimated to have the virus, which attacks the liver and can lead to fatal cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated.
“Today, on World Hepatitis Day, I am calling on the government to urgently address the dearth of harm reduction services which are proven to be so successful in preventing the transmission of hepatitis C. According to government data, over a third of injecting drug users report not having adequate needle and syringe equipment for their needs.
“Local authorities, which are responsible for providing needle and syringe exchanges, must be given the necessary guidance and funding to carry out this duty and help prevent further hepatitis C infections. Inadequate public health measures to protect the health of some of the most vulnerable people in our society exacerbates inequalities and must be tackled as a priority.”
First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said: “Wales is committed to eliminating hepatitis C by 2030, sparing thousands of people from the increased risk of liver disease and cancer which this virus causes.
“People can often live with hepatitis C with no or only general symptoms for many years, though the consequences of delaying treatment can be fatal. Increased testing to pick up undiagnosed patients is therefore hugely important. Testing and treating people outside of hospitals, such as in community pharmacies, is key to achieving elimination and in this Wales is leading the way: the appointment of a national pharmacy lead last year will drive forward efforts to identify and cure people with hepatitis C, and services continue to run various community outreach projects to this end.
“As health and community services recover from the current crisis, it is crucial that we continue to tackle hepatitis C and the health inequalities it causes.”
Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies said: “This World Hepatitis Day it is more important than ever that the Welsh Government re-focuses its efforts on eliminating hepatitis C. Over ten thousand people are currently living with the virus in Wales, of whom around half are not aware they have an infection which could be inflicting lasting damage on their liver.
“Continuing to test and treat hepatitis C in a post-lockdown world is of paramount importance. Supporting people to clear the virus will stem the tide of mortality from hepatitis C-related liver disease and liver cancer and in doing so reduce the burden on the health service and improve patient outcomes.
“Wales has come a long way towards its target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030. These gains must be maintained as our services and hospitals enter the next phase of recovery.”
Leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price said: “Hepatitis C continues to be a significant driver of health inequalities in Wales. The groups it predominantly affects – including people who inject drugs and people experiencing homelessness – have often been under-served by public services in the past and find the usual treatment pathways difficult to access.
“Wales has led the way by encouraging the testing of people using substance misuse services through key performance indicators. However, with 12,000 people still living with the virus in this nation, there is still much more to do.
“World Hepatitis Day provides us with an opportunity to go further and reaffirm our commitment to testing and treating those people who are at increased risk of transmission, and in doing so tackle this disease as a public health priority.”
Joe FitzPatrick, Scottish Government Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing,said: “Last World Hepatitis Day, the Scottish Government announced it was bringing forward its ambition to eliminate hepatitis C by six years, aiming for elimination by 2024. This year, I am delighted to reaffirm our commitment to that aim.
“Hepatitis C left untreated can cause liver disease, one of the biggest killers in this country. Medical advancements combined with effective strategies and, crucially, the determination of those working in health and community services have meant that the number of people with hepatitis C in Scotland has significantly decreased in the last decade. We are working hard to get this number down further still.
“For example, NHS Tayside’s new approach to treating people with hepatitis C has seen the region meet the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) target for reducing prevalence of the virus 11 years early.
“Working together we are determined that Scotland can eliminate Hepatitis C, and in doing so mark a historic moment in the history of infectious diseases.”