UK Doctors warn of death toll from 'silent epidemic' of
By Jeremy Laurance Health Editor
01 January 2004
Hospital specialists criticised the Government yesterday for
to act to curb the spread of hepatitis C, a lethal blood-borne
The silent epidemic of hepatitis C is officially estimated to
infected 200,000 people in the UK - four times as many as HIV
more than 100 people are being infected each week.
It is already the main reason for liver transplants and is
to be killing more people than Aids by 2020, yet only a
victims know they are infected and just 1 per cent are
The seriousness of the threat was recognised by the Department
Health when it published a strategy for dealing with the
months ago and promised an action plan by the end of 2002. But
year later nothing has been done.
Graham Foster, professor of hepatology at the Royal London
said: "There is much disappointment at the lack of an
Absolutely nothing is happening."
A new study, to be published shortly, will show a dramatic
in the number of new infections, Professor Foster said. Last
the Health Protection Agency revealed that 5,901 cases of
C infection were diagnosed in 2002, compared with fewer than
"The figures are horrifying. Over the next 10 to 15 years
disease and cancer rates will soar. The Government is talking
talk but it is doing nothing else," Professor Foster
The outlook for sufferers has been transformed in the past
new drug cocktails have increased the proportion of patients
be cured to 60 per cent. Other countries have established
to identify and treat patients. France treats 15,000 patients
compared with 2,000 a year in Britain.
"In the UK we are just discussing it and hoping it will
Professor Foster said.
Most victims are unaware they are infected, but up to 30 per
will suffer severe symptoms caused by chronic inflammation of
liver including cirrhosis, liver cancer and death over two to
William Irving, professor of virology at Nottingham
Britain was one of the few countries with a policy on
"But it is disappointing we haven't seen an
implementation plan or
any funding for an implementation plan. There are a lot of
out there with hepatitis C and there is a window of
treat them now before they develop liver disease."
One reason for neglect of the disease is thought to be its
life" association with intravenous drug use - it is
spread by shared
But increasingly it is also being spread by "social"
drug use such
as snorting cocaine. Straws used to snort cocaine are often
around and may become contaminated by blood from the nasal
epithelium caused by the corrosive, alkaline nature of the
The virus can also be spread through sex, though this is rare,
through skin piercing, tattooing and shared use of razor
toothbrushes. It is 10 times more infectious via
contact than HIV, but less infectious than HIV via sexual
Many victims became infected through experimenting with
drugs decades ago and now lead stable lives with families and
Others were infected through blood transfusions.
The virus was identified in 1989 but screening of blood was
introduced until 1991, and many sufferers do not know how they
Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust, said:
was a lot of experimentation with intravenous drug use at the
the Seventies and early Eighties - far more than most people
There was a huge influx of heroin after the Iranian revolution
1979 and experimentation involves someone showing you how to
and using their syringe. Now those people are starting to come
through with chronic liver disease.
"The Government is dragging its feet on this - there is a
political will and a fear of the cost implications."
A treatment based on interferon can eliminate hepatitis C from
body, and a new slow-release version was recommended by the
Institute for Clinical Excellence last month. But the virus is
symptomless in its early stages, meaning efforts have to be
test and identify those infected. There is also a shortage of
trained nurses able to give the treatment which lasts up to a
A spokeswoman for the health department said: "The
action plan will be published in due course."