Hepatitis C Deaths: Legacy Of Our Past Behaviour
Many hepatitis C infections in the UK stem from recreational injecting drug use that began in the 1960s according to a new report released today by the Health Protection Agency.
Hepatitis C in the UK, an annual report for 2008, profiles the burden of hepatitis C and highlights that many people remain unaware of their infections. Decades on from the 60s, evidence is continuing to emerge of hepatitis C related liver disease, a worrying trend that, according to the Agency, will continue unless more people are tested, diagnosed and given access to effective treatment.
Hepatitis C is a chronic blood borne viral infection that affects the liver. The infection is usually silent for many years, but long-term inflammation of the liver can lead to liver damage. By the time illness becomes apparent, it may have caused serious liver disease and this can result in liver failure and death.
It is thought that around 250,000 people in the UK have ever been infected with the virus, with only one quarter of these expected to have cleared the infection. It is estimated that around a half of people living with hepatitis C have not been tested for the infection and are unaware they have contracted it. Without treatment, these individuals will be living with the virus and are at risk of developing serious liver disease.
Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis C expert from the Health Protection Agency, said: "Hepatitis C is a disease many people associate with current drug use, but we should not forget people who could have been infected many years ago and are unaware of their infection. For example, people may have been infected by sharing needles once or twice when they were younger, and are now living stable everyday lives."
In England, the Agency has estimated that the number of people becoming infected increased dramatically after 1960, reaching almost 15,000 new infections in 1988. This increase is now being reflected in deaths from liver disease more than two decades later.
People who feel that they may have unknowingly put themselves at risk are being urged to come forward and get tested. The number of laboratory confirmed diagnoses of hepatitis C infection in England reported to the HPA in 2007 was 7540; a 12 per cent increase on the previous year. This increase suggests that more people are coming forward to be tested. Much of the increase this year is thought to be due to increased awareness about hepatitis C amongst both health care workers and the public.
The main risks in the UK are injecting drug use and the sharing of contaminated needles or equipment, and receiving a blood transfusion before screening began in 1991. People born and raised in high prevalence countries (many countries in Africa, Latin America and central and South-Eastern Asia) could have also been infected through other forms of blood exposure such as unsterile medical equipment.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Consultant in Public Health at the Health Protection Agency, said: "The Health Protection Agency monitors trends in hepatitis C at a national level and works with other agencies through our network of local leads to improve services for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis."