Hepatitis C Diagnoses Increasing

The number of people with the severe liver disease hepatitis C in England has soared, latest figures show. Data from the Health Protection Agency shows the number newly diagnosed in 2005 was 7,580, up from 2,116 in 2004.

Testing for the disease has also increased, with GPs carrying out 60% more tests last year than in 2002.

If hepatitis C, which is usually contracted through infected blood, is untreated it can cause cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Most people who contract the disease do so by sharing needles when injecting drugs.

The latest estimates on the number of adults infected with hepatitis C showed there were around 231,000 in 2003.

Many people do not realise they have the virus as it can take years or even decades for symptoms to appear. But early treatment is effective at clearing it up in most.

Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis C expert from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said: “Hepatitis C is very under-diagnosed simply because people are unaware that they are carrying it. By increasing awareness of the infection, more people will be tested, will receive earlier and more effective treatment, and they can avoid passing it on to others.”

She added: “We estimate that almost six in 10 people with hepatitis C injected drugs at some point in their past. If someone has ever shared equipment for injecting drugs – even if it was a long time ago, and even if they only did it once or twice – they could be at risk from hepatitis C. A simple blood test can establish whether someone has ever been infected with the virus.”

Professor Pete Borriello, director of the HPA’s Centre for Infections said: “Testing for hepatitis C has increased significantly, however there is still much work to be done as a significant number of individuals remain undiagnosed. If you don’t know you’ve got it, you can’t do anything about it. Health services should consider this as they formulate strategies to increase testing.”