Campaign To Raise Awareness Of Hepatitis C Among Health Professionals

An information campaign targeted at professionals with the aim of improving their knowledge of Hepatitis C and tackling stigma is being stepped up.

Launched nearly a year ago, the Scottish Government-led campaign has been focused on reaching around 16,000 health and non-health professionals, including GPs, NHS managers, Hepatitis C nurses, drug support workers and social workers, across the country.

By providing a new suite of information materials, the campaign has encouraged professionals to update their knowledge on the virus, with the aim of ensuring that people affected by the Hepatitis C and their families get the best care and support available.

The information campaign, taken forward as part of the Hepatitis C Action Plan launched last year, is now been widened to target other professionals likely to come into contact with people with the virus such as prison officers, local authority staff, midwives and students in the health field.

It is estimated that around 50,000 people in Scotland have been infected with the virus, with the majority of those infected living in the Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lothian, Grampian and Tayside areas.

During April to June 2007, 420 new cases of Hepatitis C were diagnosed. This figure compares with 444 and 381 for the second quarter of 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Health Protection Scotland is currently developing Phase 2 of the Action Plan which will seek to build significantly on the work already taken forward, and proposals for this will be presented to Ministers early next year for consideration.

In its first year, the campaign has targeted professionals with up-to-date information and materials, including fact sheets, a website, and a ‘talking heads’ DVD for GPs and patients.

The 30-minute long DVD features professionals who have been involved in the diagnosis of  Hepatitis C and patients who have been treated for the virus talking about their experiences and is intended to be a ‘virtual support group’ for those affected.

Those featured in the DVD include Dr John Dillon, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, and Jan Tait, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Gastroenterology, both with NHS Tayside. More than 5,000 copies of the DVD have been distributed to GPs so far across Scotland.

Between January and September this year, there have been around 161,000 hits to the website to view the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) on the management of Hepatitis C.

There are plans to further develop the website next year for access by the public and to explore ways to make it interactive by including cases studies of professionals talking about their own experiences of diagnosing and treating people with the virus.

The information materials highlight the nature and scale of Hepatitis C across Scotland and explain the different routes through 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 un-sterile equipment.

Commenting on the progress being made by the information campaign, Professor David Goldberg from Health Protection Scotland said: “The first stage of the campaign has made significant progress in reaching out to health professionals by providing them with up-to-date information on how they can diagnose and care effectively for people infected with Hepatitis C.

“Increased awareness and early diagnosis of the infection can help reduce the future spread of Hepatitis C and prevent long-term complications.

“Hepatitis C virus infection still remains a significant health problem in Scotland and it is therefore vital we address this challenge by taking steps to prevent, diagnose and treat persons carrying it, as well as helping improve the quality of life for people affected by the virus.”

Hepatitis C is a potentially fatal liver blood-borne virus. However, early diagnosis and intervention for people with the virus can prevent the transmission to others, a reduced rate of liver damage, and less risk of long term complications of Hepatitis C infection and treatment options. There is no vaccine against the virus.

Approximately 20% of those infected with Hepatitis C 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.

Of the 50,000 infected people in Scotland, 75% are estimated to be chronically infected, with two thirds of this group remaining undiagnosed and the same percentage being former injecting drug users.

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.

Many people infected with Hepatitis C do not realise they are affected for some time afterwards, although generalised signs and symptoms associated with chronic conditions 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 Hepatitis C-related services and to 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 Scottish Government-led information campaign has been progressed in consultation with key stakeholders, including the Scottish Prison Service, Scottish Drugs Forum, Health Protection Scotland, the 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 Hepatitis C 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.

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