12th Jan 2017

Public Health England Committed to Eliminating Hepatitis C in the UK

In October 2016, Public Health England (PHE), the agency sponsored by the Department of Health to improve health and wellbeing across the country, released a report on hepatitis C in the UK. In the report, PHE pledged to work together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to eliminate the threat to public health caused by hepatitis C by 2030. The partnership supports the WHO elimination plan, which has set the following global targets:

  • Reduce the number of deaths associated with hepatitis C by 65%
  • Increase the number of patients who have been diagnosed by 90%
  • Increase the number of patients who are getting treatment by 80%

In the report, Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of PHE, stated that PHE and the WHO share a vision of a world where transmission of hepatitis C is minimised and “everyone living with viral hepatitis has access to safe, affordable and effective care and treatment”.

Hepatitis C in the UK

The report indicates that while these targets can be achieved, and perhaps exceeded, there is still more that the UK can do to improve the health of the more than 214,000 people living with chronic, long-lasting hepatitis C.

The biggest risk factor for transmission of hepatitis C is use of unsterilised needles; most commonly used when injecting drugs. Around half of people who inject drugs in England and Wales are thought to have hepatitis C, slightly less in Northern Ireland but higher in Scotland. Hepatitis C often has no obvious symptoms for many years until the liver is significantly damaged, so it is estimated that half of the people in the UK who have hepatitis C do not know they have it. If left untreated, it can cause serious liver damage and other complications such as liver cancer.

However, the report notes that in 2015, the number of people with hepatitis C who received treatment increased by around 40% since the previous year, and there was a fall of 11% in deaths associated with hepatitis C. This may be due to introduction of a new, more effective type of medicines that have little to no side effects.

Public Health England’s strategy to eliminate hepatitis C

Within the report, PHE outline three main areas where improvements need to be made in the UK in order to eliminate hepatitis C:

  1. Reducing the transmission of hepatitis C
    • Educate people who are at risk of coming into contact with the virus of the various ways that it can be spread
    • Decrease the likelihood of people sharing unclean equipment by providing services such as local needle exchange units, where people can swap used needles for clean ones
    • Provide effective drug and alcohol support services to help people overcome their addiction
  1. Increasing the number of people who receive an early diagnosis to avoid development of serious complications
    • Raise awareness of how hepatitis C spreads, so that more people will know if they are at risk
    • Identify at-risk communities to help diagnose patients early and prevent development of serious complications
    • Roll out more testing across the UK, particularly targeted to these at-risk communities
  1. Improving access to, and completion of, treatment
    • Improve communication between testing and treatment centres to allow easy referral of newly diagnosed patients who need treating
    • Provide guidance and treatment advice to patients and offer support from healthcare professionals, patient groups and community members throughout the treatment programme

With this plan, PHE has outlined a framework to ensure that all people with hepatitis C in the UK receive care, treatment and support.

Everyone is worth the chance of becoming hepatitis C free.

The full PHE England report is available here.