A new NHS screening pilot will give thousands of people the opportunity to access hepatitis C treatment.
Hepatitis C is a virus that infects the liver, and when left untreated, it can cause serious damage to the liver over many years. Hepatitis C treatment includes a weekly injection called pegylated interferon and a tablet called ribavirin.
The new scheme driven by the NHS will begin in September 2022 and has the potential outreach of helping up to 80,000 people unknowingly living with this virus to receive diagnosis and treatment sooner.
Identifying patients who require hepatitis C treatment
The NHS will work to identify individuals who may have the virus by searching health records for several key hepatitis C risk factors, such as historic blood transfusions or those with HIV.
Any individuals discovered during this screening process will be invited for a review by their GP and offered further screening for hepatitis C. Following this, patients who test positive for the virus will access life-saving hepatitis C treatment made available by NHS England.
NHS staff are visiting at-risk communities in specially equipped trucks to test for the virus and administer crucial liver checks involving a fibrosis scan that detects liver damage. So far, the screening programme has increased testing rates by double, helping 65,000 people to access hepatitis C treatment, which has reduced deaths from the virus by over one-third and cut the number of liver transplants by over half.
Eliminating Hepatitis C by 2030
The NHS has outlined its goals to eliminate chronic hepatitis C before the global goal of 2030 set by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2016, WHO proposed the ambition of eliminating hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030 to reduce new chronic infections by 80% and reduce mortality by 65%. However, WHO noted that most countries will miss the target due to a lack of investment and engagement in the elimination goal.
Professor Graham Foster, National Clinical Chair for the NHS England’s Hepatitis C Elimination Programmes, said: “This pilot marks a significant step forward in our fight to eliminate chronic Hepatitis C in England by 2030 by enabling the NHS to use new software to identify and test patients most at risk from the virus – potentially saving thousands of lives.”
Rachel Halford, chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “Thanks to the brilliant advances we have seen in Hepatitis C treatment in recent years we have a real opportunity to eliminate the virus as a public health concern in the next few years. However, in order to do so, we need to make progress in finding those living with an undiagnosed infection and refer them to hepatitis C treatment.
“That is why the announcement of this new screening programme is such welcome news. Primary care is where we are most likely to find those who have been living with an undiagnosed infection for many years.
“There has been brilliant work to expand testing in a wide range of settings in recent years, but we have not yet seen the advances we need to see in primary care.
“The roll-out of this screening programme is, therefore, another crucial step towards achieving elimination”.