The NHS is set to eliminate hepatitis C in England by 2025 due to targeted screening campaigns for those at risk and effective drug treatments, according to health officials. NHS England said the measures were helping to cut deaths from the virus significantly, five years ahead of global targets.
Deaths from hepatitis C – including liver disease and cancer – have fallen by 35% since NHS England struck a five-year deal worth almost £1 billion to buy antivirals for thousands of patients in 2018.
The WHO target to reduce hepatitis C-related deaths by 10% by 2020 has been exceeded threefold in England.
The NHS screening program launched in September also enables up to 80,000 people living with the disease unknowingly to get a diagnosis and treatment sooner by searching health records for key risk factors, such as historical blood transfusions or HIV.
Professor Sir Stephen Boyce, National Medical Director for NHS England, said the health service was “leading the world” in the campaign to save lives and eradicate hepatitis C while also addressing health inequalities.
He said: “Thanks to targeted screening and because the NHS has a proven track record of drug agreements giving patients access to the latest medicines, we are on track to meet global targets and become the first country to eliminate hepatitis C.”
Dedicated NHS ‘research and treatment’ programs have also helped reduce cases of hepatitis C among vulnerable communities such as homeless people, who are at greater risk due to drug use, sharing toothbrushes or razors, and other lifestyle factors associated with rough sleeping.
NHS staff visit high-risk communities in specially equipped vans to test for the virus and carry out liver health checks using portable organ damage scans.
Hepatitis C is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. It can be spread by sharing unsterilized needles — especially needles used to inject recreational drugs. If left untreated, the virus can cause liver cancer and liver failure.
Homelessness charity St Mungo offer same day checks along with help to complete treatment as part of the programme.
Sarah Hyde, hepatitis C coordinator at St Mungo’s in Oxford, said: “With hepatitis C treatment now less invasive – a course of medication for eight to 12 weeks – we’ve seen a spread in people responding to our screening services.”
Nationwide, the project has helped treat 70,000 people from the potentially fatal disease, according to England’s National Health Service. In six years, it has also reduced the number of people seeking liver transplants due to the virus by two-thirds, while the number of annual liver transplant registrations in patients with hepatitis C-related illnesses has fallen from about 140 annually to less than 50 in 2020.
The project also provided 80% of its treatments to individuals from communities in the poorer half of the population.
Since the launch of the NHS Children’s Hepatitis C Treatment Scheme last year, more than 100 children have received antivirals that treat the infection, with 90% of treatments given to children in the poorest 40%.
Rachel Halford, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Foundation, said: “The progress that has been made towards eliminating the disease is truly amazing. We now need a final concerted effort to make sure we reach all those who may be affected and reach elimination.”
Health Secretary Lord Markham said: “I am grateful to NHS staff and our partner charities such as St Mungo for the fantastic progress that has been made so far. Deaths and the spread of the virus have fallen steadily thanks to improvements in diagnosis and access to treatments.”
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