Children in England are set to be the first in the world to be offered a cure for hepatitis C, as part of NHS plans to eradicate the disease entirely.
More than 100 children have been identified for treatment, with hundreds more set to benefit in the coming months and years. Those aged 3 to 18 years will be given the lifesaving antiviral tablets to treat and cure the condition.
This is the latest action from the NHS to find and treat people with hepatitis C, as part of NHS Long Term Plan ambitions to be the first in the world to eliminate the condition ahead of the 2030 World Health Organization commitment.
The NHS has already cured more than 50,000 adults from the virus since 2015, with a further 80,000 receiving treatment over the next five years, as the health service aims to beat the World Health Organization target of eliminating the disease by 2030.
Patients are treated with five antiviral tablets, with two follow-up blood tests – one at the end of their treatment and another 24 weeks later and if both are negative it means the child has been cured of hepatitis.
Families have welcomed the latest move with one mum saying she is ‘over the moon’ that her five year old can now be treated and cured.
Professor Stephen Powis, Medical Director for NHS England said: “It is not very often we get the opportunity to completely eradicate a disease, but this world-first treatment for children will help the NHS achieve its goal to eliminate hepatitis C in England way ahead of the 2030 target set by the World Health Organisation.
“Getting children access to this treatment as early as possible will transform the lives of children and their families and is the latest life-saving drug offered to children by the NHS, following innovative gene-therapies to cure blindness and the world’s most expensive drug Zolgensma which can cure paralysis in babies made available on the health service this year.”
Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver and, if left untreated, can cause liver cancer and other serious and potentially life-threatening damage over many years.
Children can get hepatitis from their mother at the time of birth or from receiving healthcare abroad, such as immunisations.
Since the launch of the service, the national treatment team have held monthly meetings to discuss the care and treatment of children in England and can prescribe treatment at local centres within four weeks.
Previously, children under 12 years of age could not receive the treatment but following approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the antiviral drugs can now be made available to children as young as three years old.
One mum Ashleigh Thomson said she was ‘over the moon’ after being told that her five-year-old son James* will be getting the treatment for children. Ashleigh unknowingly contracted the virus through a tattoo or piercing on but wasn’t diagnosed until she began experiencing symptoms when she was pregnant with her son James in 2014.
Ashleigh, from Milton Keynes, spoke of the relief she felt after discovering that her young son would be eligible for the new treatment: “When I found out that James was getting this treatment, I was so happy I cried for three days straight. I was over the moon.
“The guilt I felt as a mother at passing the virus onto him was so immense it felt like grief, as I feared for his future. But now some of that burden has been lifted from my shoulders as I know that he can be cured thanks to the NHS.
“There is still a huge stigma attached to hepatitis C and there needs to be a lot more education around it. James is just like any other boy.
“Even if you don’t have any symptoms, I would encourage everyone to request a simple blood test and get tested, because the sooner you act the sooner you can get cured.”
The ‘fantastic’ new service will see children and young people living anywhere in England will have virtual access to care by a team of world-leading clinicians, led by Professor Deirdre Kelly at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, while receiving treatment at their local centre, close to their homes after the service launched this Spring.
Professor Deirdre Kelly, professor of paediatric hepatology at the University of Birmingham and consultant paediatric hepatologist for Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said: “For the first time anywhere in the world, children and young people with hepatitis C will receive care as part of a national programme, delivered close to their homes. They will still be treated locally and will benefit from specialist advice given by world-leading experts. This new service will ensure equitable and inclusive care to all children who need it, wherever they live in England.
“New and exciting treatments for hepatitis C, known as direct antiviral agents, have transformed the way adults are cared for in England. Now, children and young people will be able to benefit from these treatments too. For the first time, we can cure children with hepatitis C and prevent them from developing serious liver disease, and hepatitis C related liver cancer, later in life.
“This service marks another crucial step forward in our efforts to eliminate hepatitis C. The UK Government has signed up to the World Health Organisation’s goal of eliminating hepatitis C as a major public health threat by 2030. I am delighted that this service will support England in achieving this.”
Rachel Halford, chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust said: “Children and young people now have access to Direct-Acting Antiviral treatments for hepatitis C. These treatments are effective, with few side-effects, and are taken as pills.
“This is a massive improvement on old treatments which had major side-effects and could often fail to clear the virus. It is fantastic that this network will mean children can access these treatments easily, close to their home, with their care discussed and overseen by the leading experts in the country.”
Dr Helen Harris, senior scientist at Public Health England, said: “With improved access to the latest hepatitis C treatments already having contributed to a 20% reduction in deaths from serious hepatitis C-related liver disease in England, it is good news that treatment is now being extended to children and young people. Improved access to the latest hepatitis C treatments will help us to reach our goal to eliminate hepatitis C as a major public health threat in the UK.”