'Poor treatment for hepatitis C infection in UK'

illustration of virus in blood Image copyright SPL
Image caption Hepatitis C infection can lead to liver cancer, permanent liver scarring and liver failure

Official figures for England show just 3% of people who develop chronic hepatitis C each year receive treatment to help clear the virus.

The report, from Public Health England, says UK deaths from the condition have quadrupled in 16 years to some 400 in 2012.

The number of admissions to hospital for serious liver complications has also risen fourfold to 2,400.

Charities say the "shockingly low level of treatment" is failing patients.

'Eminently preventable'

Hepatitis C, a viral infection spread through bodily fluids, currently affects more than 200,000 people in the UK.

According to experts intravenous drug use is the most common way of acquiring the disease in the UK.

Three-quarters of people with the virus go on to develop chronic disease - which can lead to liver cancer and permanent liver scarring (cirrhosis).

But the report shows the majority of people who need antiviral drugs to help clear the virus, do not receive them.

Officials say this is in part due to people being unaware they have the condition (it can have no symptoms in early years) and because of a lack of testing and treatment facilities for communities that need it most.

They warn that an extra 2,700 people could face hepatitis-C-related liver cancer or cirrhosis in England over the next year if the situation does not improve.

Experts predict if everyone had access to newer, more effective medications, some 8,000 people could be prevented from suffering these often fatal complications by 2025.

Public Health England says there is an urgent need for better monitoring of patients and wider testing for people at risk.

They call for treatment to be expanded to non-traditional settings such as prisons, primary care and drug treatment centres.

'Pressing need'

Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust said: "We must accept the rising hospital episodes and deaths, the poor diagnosis rate and the shockingly low level of treatment means we are failing patients.

"This report highlights the pressing need for immediate scale-up of the whole response to hepatitis C from prevention, through diagnosis and into treatment.

"Deaths from hepatitis C are now eminently preventable. It is up to us to see that we do prevent them."

Dr Paul Cosford of Public Health England said: "The landscape of hepatitis C treatment is changing rapidly and an era of vastly improved treatment is potentially on the way.

"In the meantime, the disease burden is rising and there is still a pressing need for infected patients to be treated as soon as possible."

Before improved blood screening was introduced in 1991, some people acquired the disease through contaminated transfusions.

And experts say individuals who have dental or medical treatments in countries with high rates and poor control of hepatitis C may continue to be at risk.

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