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Thousands more people will get potentially life-saving treatment for Hepatitis C thanks to a new NHS screening pilot – driving forward the NHS ambition to eliminate the virus by 2030.
The new scheme, which will begin next month, could help up to 80,000 people unknowingly living with Hep C to get a life-saving diagnosis and treatment sooner.
The NHS will identify people who might have the virus by searching health records for a number of key Hepatitis C risk factors, such as historic blood transfusions or those with HIV.
Anyone identified through the new screening process will then be invited for a review by their GP, and if appropriate, further screening for Hepatitis C.
Those who test positive for the virus will be treated with cures made available after the NHS England struck a world leading deal with three major pharmaceutical companies.
The latest UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data estimates 81,000 people in England currently have the blood-borne virus, which infects the liver and if left untreated can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage, leading to cirrhosis, possible liver failure and cancer – as well as a risk of spreading the disease to others.
To boost screening, staff are also now visiting at-risk communities in specially equipped trucks to test for the virus and carry out liver health checks involving an on-the-spot fibrosis scan which detects liver damage.
To date, the NHS programme has doubled testing rates, helped 65,000 people to access treatment, reduced deaths from Hepatitis C by over one third and cut the number of liver transplants needed for patients with Hepatitis C by more than half.
Professor Graham Foster, National Clinical Chair for the NHS England’s Hepatitis C Elimination Programmes, said: “This pilot marks a significant step forward in our fight to eliminate chronic Hepatitis C in England by 2030 by enabling the NHS to use new software to identify and test patients most at risk from the virus – potentially saving thousands of lives.
“Hepatitis C can be a fatal disease which affects tens of thousands across the country but with unlimited access to NHS treatments, innovative patient finding initiatives such as this one, community outreach projects such as liver trucks to detect liver damage on the spot – we will continue to boost the life chances of thousands of patients by catching the virus even earlier”.
The pilot programme, which runs until Spring 2023 will use a Patient Search Identification (PSI) software that has been developed for free by pharmaceutical firm MSD as part of a deal struck in 2019.
Rachel Halford, chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “Thanks to the brilliant advances we have seen in Hepatitis C treatment in recent years we have a real opportunity to eliminate the virus as a public health concern in the next few years. However, in order to do so we need to make progress in finding those living with an undiagnosed infection and refer them into treatment.
“That is why the announcement of this new screening programme is such welcome news. Primary care is where we are most likely to find those who have been living with an undiagnosed infection for many years.
“There has been brilliant work to expand testing in a wide range of settings in recent years but we have not yet seen the advances we need to see in primary care.
“The roll-out of this screening programme is therefore another crucial step towards achieving elimination”.
The NHS has an ambitious plan to eliminate chronic Hepatitis C before the global goal of 2030 set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
As part of a national campaign, community vans and specialist teams are also visiting drug and alcohol services, probation services and prisons, places of worship and community clinics and support groups.
This enables people to get quick, convenient testing, near to where they live as well as reaching at-risk people who may find it difficult to travel long distances to hospital-based services.