14 May 2010
New figures released today by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) show reported cases of Hepatitis C infection in England to have increased by 4.5% from 8,196 cases reported in 2008 to 8,563 cases in 2009.
This year's figures released in advance of World Hepatitis Day bring the cumulative reported total (from 1992 to 2009) to 78,428 diagnosed cases.
There has been a steady increase in the number of laboratory confirmed diagnoses of hepatitis C infection since 1995. These gradual yearly increases indicate an increase in public awareness with more people coming forward to get tested. Healthcare campaigns by the Department of Health, the NHS and the voluntary sectors are all likely to have contributed to this increase in awareness over recent years.
Hepatitis is a condition characterised by inflammation of the liver and can be caused by the viral infections hepatitis A, B, C and E. Hepatitis C, is a blood-borne virus which if left untreated can eventually result in chronic liver disease, liver failure or death. Many individuals are unaware that they have become infected with the virus because signs and symptoms are rare in the early years of infection.
Currently, the greatest risk of contracting hepatitis C in the UK is through sharing equipment for injecting drugs. Sharing injecting equipment, even on a one-off basis, or a long time ago, could place an individual at risk of hepatitis C. Also, hepatitis C is more prevalent in the South Asian communities who have often acquired their infections via other routes. Others may have acquired their infections via blood transfusion in the UK more than two decades earlier, before the introduction of routine screening of blood for the virus in 1991.
There is currently no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C but simple measures such as using sterile injecting equipment and not sharing personal items like toothbrushes and razors will minimise your chances of being exposed to it.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Hepatitis expert at the Centre for Infections, at the HPA: "We must not get complacent about this, it is critical that awareness campaigns are sustained and enhanced if more people at risk of this infection are to be tested and treated."
"Liver disease is largely preventable and yet it continues to rise. The majority of hepatitis C infections can be treated successfully or prevented from occurring in the first place, yet new infections are continuing to occur and many existing infections remain undiagnosed"
"If people think they may have been exposed to the virus, they should contact their GP and request a test. Tackling undiagnosed hepatitis C infections by increasing awareness and encouraging people to come forward for testing could have a major impact on the number of people suffering needlessly from liver disease in the future."
The work of the HPA includes monitoring trends in hepatitis C at a national level and working with other agencies through a network of local leads to improve services for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis.
Notes to editors
1. For further information please contact the HPA Centre for Infections press office on 020 8327 7097/6217/7080
2. The Health Protection Agency's Hepatitis C annual report is available at: http://www.hpa.org.uk/web/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1259152221464
3. NHS Choices Hepatitis C website (information on what hepatitis is, how people contract it or put themselves at risk, and how you can get treated) http://www.nhs.uk/hepatitisc/Pages/default.aspx
4. World Hepatitis Day (site of the World Hepatitis Alliance)
6. Hepatitis is the swelling or inflammation of the liver. The most common causes of hepatitis are viral infections, such as hepatitis C. Some of the other main causes of the liver disease include alcohol and obesity.
7. Other groups at risk of infection include those who have received a blood transfusion before September 1991 or blood products before 1986 in the UK, as well as those who originate from countries where hepatitis C is endemic. Less common ways to become infected include:
8. The World Health Organization estimates that 170 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C. More people are affected worldwide by hepatitis than HIV (which affects an estimated 33 million people worldwide) but in the majority of cases the infection goes undiagnosed and untreated. In the UK, it is estimated that around 185,000 individuals are infected with hepatitis C, at least 130,000 of them in England.
9. Initiatives to help fight the infection have included the 'Get tested. Get treated' campaign launched last year to target former injecting drug users together with a campaign targeting the South Asian community, who are at increased risk of infection and who may have acquired their infections via other routes. Other work on a national level to tackle hepatitis C and other causes of liver disease has included creating the new position of National Clinical Director, who will lead on the development of a national liver strategy.
Last reviewed: 14 May 2010