There has been a significant reduction in deaths from hepatitis C, the government has said.
Figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have shown a 35% reduction in deaths from the disease between 2015 and 2020, with the agency saying this means there has been “considerable progress” made in the government’s ambition to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health problem in England by 2030.
The data has shown the estimated prevalence of chronic hepatitis C in England has continued to decline to around 81,000 in 2020, compared to 129,000 in 2015, a 37% fall in the general population, said the UKHSA.
Provisional data also suggested there has been a 40% decline in people who inject drugs.
Deaths due to advanced liver disease related to hepatitis C have also fallen, from 482 in 2015 to 314 in 2020, exceeding the World Health Organization target for a 10% drop by 2020, said the UKHSA.
As most occupational health professionals will be well aware, hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a blood-borne 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.
When symptoms do occur, they can often be non-specific, like tiredness or loss of appetite, and be dismissed or mistaken for other conditions.
The virus is spread through blood-to-blood contact. While it is most common in the UK from sharing needles contaminated with the virus, it can also be caused by needlestick injuries at work – a risk particularly common in healthcare settings.
The UKHSA modelling has indicated that, of the 81,000 people estimated to have this chronic infection in England, around:
- 27% of the chronic infections were in people who have recently injected drugs
- 62% were in those with a past drug injecting history but who are no longer injecting
- 11% were in those with no history of injecting drug use
The reduction in prevalence has been largely achieved by increased access to treatments, with around 58,850 treatments taking place between April 2015 and the end of March 2021, the agency added.
Its provisional data also suggested that more than half (60%) of people who inject drugs may be unaware of their chronic HCV infection, increasing the chance that they could unknowingly pass the virus to others.
Dr Helen Harris, clinical scientist at the UKHSA, said: “In England, we are on our way to eliminating hepatitis C as the number of deaths continue to decline and direct acting antiviral drugs are available that will clear the virus in around 95% of people who complete treatment.
“But 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 happened 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 and get a free test.”
The Health and Safety Executive has guidance on managing the risk of hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses in the workplace here.
The UKHSA is one of two new agencies, along with the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, that has been formed by the government from the scrapping of Public Health England.