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Hepatitis C: what is it and what are the symptoms?

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FRANCOIS
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FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say tens of thousands of Britons are unaware they have the deadly infection

One-Minute Read
Friday, September 13, 2019 - 2:36pm

Nearly 100,000 people in the UK could have unknowingly contracted the fatal liver disease hepatitis C, say health officials.

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Public Health England (PHE) has warned that an estimated 95,600 people - mainly drug users - could have the disease without knowing it.

PHE’s estimate of infection numbers was based on anonymous health monitoring of drug users.

Steve Mowle, of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It’s extremely concerning to hear that so many people have undiagnosed hepatitis C. It’s a dangerous disease for individual patients and a significant public health risk.”

The virus is blood-borne and is usually transmitted through contaminated needles. Nine in ten people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) inject recreational drugs such as heroin or have done so, says The Guardian.

And although the number of people injecting heroin is declining, some drug users also inject stimulants, cocaine and crack cocaine.

“These [drugs] are associated with more frequent injection, more damage at the injection site and with the spread of viral and bacterial infection,” the PHE report says.

But the NHS says HCV can also be transmitted through sharing razors or toothbrushes, or in rare cases through unprotected sex.

Hepatitis C-related liver disease claimed 380 lives in the UK last year, down from the 468 recorded in 2015, says the Guardian

What are the signs?

Helen Harris, a senior scientist at PHE, said: “HCV is a blood-borne virus that can cause life-threatening liver disease, including cancer. However, those infected often have no symptoms until decades later, when their liver has been badly damaged.”

Where symptoms do occur, they can include: flu-like effects, such as muscle aches and a high temperature; feeling tired all the time; loss of appetite; abdominal pain; and feeling or being sick.

If you are worried you might have HCV, you can have a blood test to rule it out or confirm the virus. GPs, sexual health clinics, GUM clinics and drug treatment services all offer testing for hepatitis C.

How is it treated?

The good news for anyone worried they are infected with HCV is that 95% of sufferers who receive treatment can be cured.

Until recently, most people infected with HCV would be treated with two medicines: a weekly injection of pegylated interferon, and capsules or tablets of ribavirin.

But tablet-only treatment is now available for sufferers. “These new hepatitis C medicines have been found to make treatment more effective, are easier to tolerate, and have shorter treatment courses,” says the NHS. Tablets include the drugs simeprevir, sofosbuvir and daclatasvir.

Pamela Healy, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “There is now an effective cure for everyone living with hepatitis C and ... the numbers of people living with HCV are going down. The challenge now is for us to find the tens of thousands – an alarming amount – who are currently undiagnosed.

“If you have ever dabbled with drugs, even when you were much younger, practised unsafe sex or had a tattoo while travelling abroad, please get yourself tested just to make sure,” she added.

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