New Campaign To Raise Awareness Of Hepatitis C

An innovative information campaign to improve knowledge of Hepatitis C and tackle stigma has been launched for professionals in Scotland. At least 16,000 health and non-health professionals, including GPs, NHS managers, Hepatitis C nurses, drug support workers and social workers, across the country are being targeted in the Scottish Executive led campaign to ensure people and their families affected by the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) get the best care and support available.

The move fulfils a key objective identified in the recently published Hepatitis C Action Plan aimed at tackling rates of the virus thought to affect an estimated 50,000 people living in Scotland.

As part of the campaign, a website is being launched on January 30 which is based on the newly published Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) on the management of Hepatitis C.

Professionals will be able to access the website to view the national managed clinical guidelines which include information on testing, referral and treatment of the virus.

The website may be developed at a later stage for access by the public.

Work is currently under way to also develop a new suite of up-to-date information and materials for professionals and a talking heads DVD for GPs and patients.

The materials will highlight the nature and scale of HCV across Scotland and explains the routes which the virus can be transmitted such as sharing drug equipment, unprotected sex, contaminated blood products, sharing razors, and ear piercing, body piercing, tattooing or acupuncture with unsterile equipment.

The DVD will feature people who have been involved in the diagnosis of the HCV and who have been treated for the virus talking about their experiences and is intended to be a ‘virtual support group’ for those affected.

Commenting on the information campaign, Dr Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, said: “Hepatitis C is a significant health problem in Scotland. I welcome the major steps which are being taken as part of the Action Plan to tackle this issue which includes a focus on improving knowledge among professionals to ensure those affected by Hepatitis C get the support they need and improved access to treatment. By tackling stigma through increased awareness and early diagnosis of the infection, we can help reduce future spread of Hepatitis C and prevent long-term complications.”

Hepatitis C is a potentially fatal liver blood-borne virus, however early diagnosis and intervention of people with the virus can prevent the transmission to others, a reduced rate of liver damage, and less risk of long term complications of HCV infection and treatment options. Approximately one-third of those infected live in Greater Glasgow and a third in the Lothian, Grampian and Tayside areas. Two-thirds are male; the majority are aged less than 50.

Testing is particularly important for former and current injecting drug users because of the greater risks of the virus being transmitted through sharing and re-using syringes and other drug equipment.

David Liddell, Director of Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “I welcome this drive to raise awareness about Hepatitis C and to tackle the stigma which continues to surround the virus. It is vital that the thousands of people in Scotland living with Hepatitis C receive the information and support they need. Providing relevant and up-to-date information to GPs and other health professionals and agencies working with people with Hepatitis C is an important first step towards improving our wider response to the issue. This in turn will help the quality of life for people affected by the virus.”

Approximately 20% of those infected with HCV will naturally clear the virus from their body and experience no long-term affects from the infection. However, for the remaining 80% a chronic long-term infection will develop.  

Many people don’t realise they are affected for some time afterwards, although generalized signs and symptoms associated with chronic HVC include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, muscle pain, joint pain, intermittent low-grade fevers, itching, sleep disturbances, abdominal pain (especially in the right upper quadrant), appetite changes, nausea, dyspepsia, cognitive changes, depression, headaches, and mood swings.
The £4million Hepatitis C Action Plan launched in September 2006 aims to put in place mechanisms to ensure better co-ordination, planning and accountability of Hep C-related services and build on efforts to reduce the number of new cases in Scotland. The funding is being distributed to NHS boards to assist them in enabling improvements in these areas.

The move to provide professionals with up-to-date information and materials has been developed in consultation with key stakeholders, including the Scottish Drugs Forum, Health Protection Scotland, Hepatitis C Resource Centre, STRADA, and is based on research and evaluation of existing knowledge and materials available in Scotland.

It is aimed at supporting specific key objectives identified in the Action Plan including reducing transmission of HCV among current injecting drug users, diagnosing infected persons, particularly those most in need of treatment, and providing the best care and support to those diagnosed with the virus.

Recent research carried out among professionals revealed they were aware of HCV but showed a marked gap between awareness and understanding of the condition in some sectors, particularly in primary care in the NHS.

Some of those interviewed from the primary care professions believed HCV to be transmitted exclusively by needle sharing.

Research demonstrated a clear need for an education campaign targeting key sectors of the health profession to raise awareness of how the virus is transmitted.

It also revealed a very high drop off rate amongst patients who have been both tested and diagnosed with HCV and their follow up appointments within the NHS.

Professor David Goldberg, Health Protection Scotland said: “Hepatitis C virus infection poses one of Scotland’s greatest public health challenges and it is therefore vital to ensure that measures taken to prevent it, and diagnose and treat persons carrying it, fully addresses this challenge.

“I welcome this campaign to provide professionals in contact with persons who have the infection, or are at risk of becoming infected, with all the necessary information to diagnose and care for them effectively.”