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Reuters Health Information (2004-01-28): UK to launch hepatitis C campaign

Public Health

UK to launch hepatitis C campaign

Last Updated: 2004-01-28 13:39:30 -0400 (Reuters Health)

LONDON (Agence de Presse Medicale for Reuters Health) - A campaign to encourage thousands of people to be tested for hepatitis C infection is to be launched in Britain, the Department of Health said on Wednesday.

Up to 500,000 people are thought to be chronically infected with hepatitis C in the UK but it remains a hidden epidemic because symptoms rarely occur at the time of initial infection.

Although 1 in 5 people recover after being exposed to the virus, most become chronically infected. Most people don't know they are infected, and that over a number of years they risk developing serious liver disease and liver cancer.

A Health Department spokesman told APM that an action plan would be published soon. "This will include a campaign to raise awareness among the public and professionals. It will be centrally funded and sustained over a number of years."

The campaign strategy will encourage high-risk groups such as injecting drug users to come forward for testing. Those found to be infected could then be offered antiviral therapy and advised to drink less alcohol to reduce the risk of liver damage.

As reported last week, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published guidance today recommending peginterferon alfa (Pegasys, Roche and PegIntron, Schering-Plough), in combination with ribavirin, for adults with moderate to severe hepatitis C.

NICE says only about 2000 people in England and Wales are being treated with some form of interferon therapy at present. It calculates that switching them all over to peginterferon will add 6.4 million pounds a year to the NHS drugs' bill, with significant further expenditure as a result of increased public awareness.

The two companies and liver specialists welcomed the new guidance.

"This is the first positive step which will allow patients in the UK to receive the same treatment choice which has been available to patients living with hepatitis C in other parts of the world for many years," said Professor Graham Foster, hepatologist at Barts and the Royal London Hospital.

"I hope that the Government provides the infrastructure necessary to implement these recommendations."

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