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Hepatitis C breakthrough cure going to waste because 500,000 Britons unaware they have virus
Tattooing is associated with twofold increased risk of hepatitis C
The virus can lead to liver failure if left untreated
‘We run the risk of seeing an entire generation lose their chance to live a long and healthy life’
Advances in treatment for hepatitis C mean more than 70 per cent of carriers can be cured if it is diagnosed early. Yet most of the half a million people with the condition are unaware they are infected, an expert said today.
Mark Wright, a consultant hepatologist at Southampton General Hospital, said there was a poor understanding of who could be at risk from the blood-borne virus.
Hepatitis C causes inflammation and scarring of the liver tissue and can lead to cirrhosis or liver failure, but most sufferers are unaware they have the disease.
The warning comes ahead of the roll-out of two new drugs – Telaprevir and Boceprevir – in the NHS later this year that will help tackle the virus.
The new treatments, which are being used at Southampton as part of a series of pioneering studies at the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, work by directly attacking the infection, preventing it from spreading or reproducing.
Electron micrograph of hepatitis virions, which are etiologic agents for viral hepatitis
‘Hepatitis C is a tricky virus which often results in liver damage before it causes any symptoms so, with most of the estimated half a million affected people in the UK unaware they have the disease, it is easy to see we are on dangerous ground,’ said Dr Wright.
‘Yet the tragedy of all of this is that, while we are not seeing the large numbers of people we know are infected coming forward due to ongoing poor understanding of the risks, treatments continue to get better and stronger yet may, sadly, go to waste if we can’t get this vital message through.
‘We run the risk of seeing an entire generation lose their chance to live a fit, long and healthy life in the worst possible circumstances when the treatment is there and available for those who recognise they are vulnerable.’
Anyone who had a blood transfusion prior to 1990, has ever shared needles to inject drugs, has had medical care abroad or has tattoos is at risk of hepatitis C.
The illness can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse.
Dr Wright added: ‘If you know you have put yourself at risk you should talk to your doctor about getting tested because the disease is treatable and more and more people can be cured thanks to a large number of new medicines such as those being used and tested here in Southampton.
‘If you are able to clear the virus and stop it returning, the disease process halts and the liver recovers.’