P

atients with hepatitis C are being failed in the UK as Strategic Health Authorities are not effectively implementing government strategies to help combat the disease and improve services, new research published by the Hepatitis C Trust claims.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver caused and is one of the most common blood-borne infections around today, being transmissible through sharing toothbrushes, tattoos, dental work and piercing, for example. Hepatitis C has been described by the World Health Organisation as a “viral time bomb” as patients can live for up to 40 years without any symptoms and so a large proportion remain undiagnosed until it is too late, as the disease ultimately leads to liver cirrhosis and cancer if left untreated.

The current number of HCV carriers is estimated to be around 201,000 in England, 50,000 in Scotland and 12,000 in Wales, however according to estimates from the University of Southampton the true number infected with the virus in England is likely to be closer to 466,000 as many are simply unaware they are carrying the disease.

Experts have long warned that the virus could be a ticking time-bomb in the UK, particularly because many infections would have occurred during the 1970’s drug culture when more people were sharing needles, and as symptoms can remain hidden for 30-40 years many believe we could be on the brink of an explosion of newly diagnosed cases.

To help boost services and the outlook for patients with disease, the Department of Health published the Hepatitis C Action Plan for England back in 2004, detailing actions on how best to improve care, research, monitoring, awareness and prevention efforts. However, an audit last year found that half of primary care trusts were only partially implementing the Plan, and that in 15% there was minimal implementation or none at all.

And now it has become apparent that Strategic Health Authorities – the bridge between the NHS and government – have failed to intervene and improve PCT implementation of the Plan, the research claims. Findings show that 70% of SHAs in England are failing to oversee the plan’s proper implementation, which, the charity stresses, is putting thousands of lives at risk as infection rates could “spiral out of control”.

Need to act now
“We have to act now to stop this. It is not acceptable that people are dying when there are treatments available to save lives,” stressed Graham Foster, Professor of Hepatology at the University of London. “The strategies that have been developed are simply not being implemented and there is no more time for excuses, we must act to ensure that the strategy is delivered. The time for paperwork is over, we need action not documents," he argued.

As the charity point out, mortality from liver disease is actually on the decline in Europe, but in England HCV deaths have actually doubled in the last 10 years. Furthermore, the number of patients suffering from HCV-related cirrhosis is expected to double to 8,280 by 2015 highlighting the urgent need to address the issue now.

According to Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust: “There is failure at every level in addressing hepatitis C. SHAs, PCTs and all relevant NHS bodies must be held accountable to avoid dire consequences,” and he added: “It is time to prioritise liver disease; it is time for a liver strategy; and it is time for a liver czar”.