Two hundred children in England have now received life-saving treatment for hepatitis C as part of a world-first NHS programme, according to latest figures.
Thanks to a new national service, the children – aged three to 18 years – were identified for treatment over the past two years and became the first in the world to receive curative anti-viral tablets with a treatment success rate of 99%.
This is part of NHS England’s Hepatitis C Elimination Programme which was expanded to include treatment for children under the age of 12 in 2021.
Hundreds more children are set to benefit from these treatments in the coming months and years, as the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambitions start to turn to reality – with the country set to be the first in the world to eliminate the virus ahead of the 2030 World Health Organization commitment.
The NHS, now in its 75th year, estimates that almost half of the children treated for hepatitis C to date have been identified in the most deprived 20% of the country, helping drive the health service’s ambitions to tackle health inequalities in children and young people.
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.
Patients are treated with antiviral tablets and receive follow up blood tests. If the results of two blood tests are negative it means the child has been cured.
Families have welcomed the programme’s progress, with one dad whose wife was infected with Hepatitis C, describing the “emotional moment” he learned his young child who inherited the virus was cured by the trailblazing treatment.
Speaking at the HCV Elimination National Conference yesterday (Wednesday), Professor Sir Stephen Powis, Medical Director for NHS England, said: “This milestone of 200 children receiving potentially life-saving treatment is an extraordinary achievement for the NHS as we continue to make progress toward the goal to eliminate Hepatitis C in England way ahead of the 2030 target set by the World Health Organization.
“Giving children this treatment as early as possible can cure them of this devastating disease, stopping them from developing serious liver disease as well as hepatitis C-related liver cancer later in life.”
“The world-leading work the NHS is doing to find and cure children and adults living with hepatitis C is also a great advert for what can be achieved when the health service, life sciences industry and charities work together to get new treatments to those patients who need them.”
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.
This development has paved the way to save more children from the bloodborne virus that can be passed on from mums who have been infected.
Darius, 45, from Coventry described the emotional moment he learned his 10-year-old daughter Dominika had been given the all-clear after receiving the antivirals as part of a world-first programme launched by NHS England in 2021.
He said: “We didn’t realise she had it at the time, but my wife passed the virus to my daughter when she was pregnant.
“Although my wife was treated immediately, my daughter was too young to start treatment. After waiting for Dominika to be old enough, we finally got the call for her appointment when the programme expanded.
“The new drugs that are used to treat the condition are absolutely brilliant.
“She had no side effects and just needed to take one pill a day. There was no problem at all.
“It’s hard to explain how amazing we felt when she was cleared of the virus, as it was such an emotional moment. We had waited a long time for her to be eligible, so it was great to have peace of mind. Thanks to the treatment, we can carry on with normal happy lives now.”
Rachel Halford, CEO of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “We’re delighted that so many children have had access to swift and effective treatment to cure hepatitis C. The sooner the virus is treated, the less impact it will have on a child’s mental health and the less damage it will cause to the liver.
“Although it is rare that children are exposed to hepatitis C, they face the same risk as any adult if they come into contact with infected blood.
“A small minority – about five in every 100 babies born to mothers who have hepatitis C – will get the infection.
“Children can also contract hepatitis C if they come into contact with infected blood in other ways; such as if they receive medical treatment in a country where infection control is poor. If you are concerned, ask your GP for a hepatitis C test.”
The NHS is on course to eliminate hepatitis C ahead of any other country in the world thanks, in part, to an innovative deal with pharma companies that means they help find patients with the condition – another example of the benefit of a single national health service in being able to deliver new innovations and life-changing care at pace and scale as the NHS turns 75.
Health Minister Maria Caufield said: “200 Children suffering with hepatitis C have now received life-saving treatment – these results speak for themselves.
“This new milestone shows how we are at the forefront of tackling serious diseases, with more and more children set to benefit from our targeted screening approach and rapid access to treatment.
“Together we are paving the way for the complete elimination of this life limiting disease and tackling health inequalities.”
Following a five-year contract worth almost £1 billion to buy antiviral drugs for thousands of patients, deaths from Hepatitis C – including liver disease and cancer – have fallen by 35%.
That improvement in outcomes means the NHS has exceeded the World Health Organization’s target of 10% by more than threefold, putting England in pole position to be among the first countries in the world to eliminate the virus as a public health concern.
NHS staff for their ongoing hard work to make England one of the first countries in the world to wipe out Hepatitis C.