Doctors warn of death toll from silent epidemic of hepatitis C

Hospital specialists criticised the British government on 31 December for not acting to curb the spread of hepatitis C, which officials estimate has infected 200,000 people in the United Kingdom – four times as many as HIV – and infects more than 100 additional people each week. It is the main cause of liver transplants and is predicted to kill more people than AIDS by 2020. However, only a quarter of patients know they are infected, and only 1% receive treatment.

The Department of Health published a strategy for dealing with hepatitis C 18 months ago and promised an action plan by the end of 2002. Graham Foster, professor of hepatology at the Royal London Hospital, said, “There is much disappointment at the lack of an action plan. Absolutely nothing is happening.”

The Health Protection Agency announced that 5,901 cases of hepatitis C were diagnosed in 2002, up from fewer than 1,000 in 1994. Foster said over the next 10 to 15 years liver disease and cancer rates would soar if no action were taken.

New drug cocktails have increased the proportion of patients who can be cured to 60%, but since the virus is symptomless in its early stages, efforts must be made to test and identify people who are infected.

William Irving, professor of virology at Nottingham University, said, “There are a lot of people out there with hepatitis C and there is a window of opportunity to treat them now before they develop liver disease.”

The blood borne virus can be spread through sharing needles, razor blades, toothbrushes and cocaine straws; tattooing; body piercing; and sex. It is 10 times more infectious than HIV via blood-to-blood contact, but less infectious than HIV via sexual contact.

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