The latest data published by UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows that there were an estimated 70,649 people living in England with hepatitis C in 2022. This is 45% lower than the number of people in 2015, thanks to improved access to antivirals that cure the infection.
NHS England has treated more than 80,000 people since 2015 as part of its national elimination programme, meaning more people have now been treated and cured of the virus than are left to treat. Of those treated, more than 80% are from the most deprived areas in England, highlighting the role of eliminating hepatitis C as a key driver of reducing health inequalities.
Eliminating hepatitis C and hepatitis B is a key priority for both UKHSA and NHS England, in order to reduce the impact of infectious disease in this country and to meet the World Health Organization’s elimination target by 2030. UKHSA’s strategy, including this hepatitis C target, was launched this week, setting out the organisation’s mission to prepare for, prevent and respond to health threats, save lives, and protect livelihoods.
Hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne virus that can cause life-threatening liver disease, including cancer. However, those infected often have no symptoms until many years later when their liver has been badly damaged. The virus is spread through blood-to-blood contact, most commonly in the UK by sharing needles contaminated with the virus – but even sharing razors or toothbrushes with someone with the infection could pass it on. People born in countries with higher prevalence of hepatitis C, such as in Eastern Europe and South Asia, or those who have had medical treatments abroad are also at increased risk.
While there has been huge progress over recent years in the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis, challenges remain. While effective and curative treatments are available, the latest data from UKHSA shows that a small but not insignificant number of successfully treated individuals become re-infected with the virus, so maintaining prevention services is critical.
UKHSA is working with partners to prevent, detect and treat the infection – for example, by working with regional operational delivery networks (ODNs). UKHSA has enabled ODNs to streamline their own data and focus on the remaining people that need to be found and treated.
Dr Sema Mandal, Deputy Director, Blood Borne Viruses at UKHSA, said:
Hepatitis C treatment has improved dramatically over recent years, but we need to identify people with the infection early to keep on track with elimination by 2030. Many people remain undiagnosed, often because they have no symptoms or are unaware that they have ever been at risk.
If you have ever injected drugs – even if it was only once or years ago – you could be at risk of hepatitis C. If you think you could be at risk, speak to your GP or do a test at home.
As part of its elimination programme, NHS England has expanded its range of options for finding the remaining cases of hepatitis C across all settings. Earlier this year, a free and confidential online testing portal was launched, enabling people to order an at-home testing kit to find out if they have the virus and receive treatment if needed. So far, more than 4,500 people have ordered testing kits, making it easier for those who might not have had access to existing service providers to get tested.
Anyone in England concerned they might have hepatitis C can order a home test kit, or speak to their GP, local pharmacist or specialist drug and alcohol service.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS National Medical Director, said:
Finding and treating more than 80,000 people as part of our hepatitis C elimination programme is a huge achievement and I’m delighted that we remain on track to eliminate the virus as a public health concern by 2030.
Earlier this year we launched a new service on the NHS website to enable people to confidentially order at-home testing kits, and so far over 4,500 people have used this kit to get tested.
Hepatitis C treatment is simple to take and highly effective, with people usually cleared of the virus within 3 to 4 months. If anyone is worried they might be at risk, it’s never been easier to get tested and be treated, or receive peace of mind, at the first opportunity.
Health minister, Will Quince said:
The data speaks for itself. We are making huge headway in eliminating hepatitis C, with England on track to be one of the first countries in the world to do so.
Deaths and prevalence of the virus have fallen consistently thanks to improvements in diagnosis and access to treatments. We are at the forefront of tackling this serious disease, by swiftly procuring the best treatments and tackling inequalities through targeted screening and will continue to work towards the World Health Organization’s target of eliminating this virus by 2030.
Rachel Halford, CEO of The Hepatitis C Trust, said:
The progress towards hepatitis C elimination in England is extraordinary and demonstrates the importance of collaboration between affected communities, government, and healthcare professionals in order to achieve success.
As we get closer to the government’s hepatitis C elimination target date, there is still work to do to make sure that we don’t miss the target.
You can go many years before you experience any symptoms of hepatitis C but the damage the virus can do to your liver as it goes undetected can be life-threatening. People can be exposed to hepatitis C in a number of ways, including having a blood transfusion before the early 1990s, having medical treatment or a tattoo abroad or via injecting-drugs use.
Getting yourself tested has never been easier. Free and confidential tests from the NHS are now available online. If you’re worried about hepatitis C, get tested, get treated, get cured.
UKHSA’s strategy to eliminate hepatitis C includes plans to:
- enhance the evidence base, surveillance and evaluation of public health interventions on blood-borne viruses to support and improve delivery of NHS and local authority services critical in reducing new infections, preventing avoidable illness and deaths
- improve understanding of why people acquire new blood-borne virus infections or reinfections and are not retained in care, including barriers to testing, treatment and care to help us and system partners identify and respond to outbreaks, and optimise communications and initiatives that reduce transmission
- reduce health inequalities around blood-borne viruses through improved understanding of how to identify and reach undiagnosed and under-engaged populations by drawing on our surveillance data and understanding of behavioural science and informing targeted NHS testing and treating initiatives to address gaps in access and care